History is Erased by the Victors

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By now most people involved in anti-oppression criticism and sci-fi/fantasy have probably heard of the current race-related imbroglio regarding Patricia C. Wrede’s The Thirteenth Child, which posits an alternative magical North America where Native Americans/Indians never existed. With apparently nary a thought for the moral implications of the fictional non-existence of real-life threatened and sometimes exterminated peoples.

Oops.

This expanded, as these things do, compounded by Lois McMaster Bujold, who I had previously respected solely on the basis of her impressive work, being “boggled” that most North American Native Nations have websites and blithely assuming that this is the first time PoC/non-white SFF fans have existed to make objections about their (lack of) representation.

I think much of what I could say on those particular subjects has already been said, repeatedly and well, by others; a round-up can be found here if you haven’t previously encountered this mess and want to learn more.

So I want to speak of something else: duet, with which I have a similar difficulty. Dreamhunter and Dreamquake are set in a New Zealand/Tasmania mash-up analogue called “Southland”. It’s a beautifully written series, and I adore the characters. But. But!

Without much plot spoiling: there is much made thematically of writing oneself into the empty land and letting the land write back. There is an emphasis on the way land collects memory and of a country one enters to collect dreams to share with others.

However, not visible in these books are the people who, in reality, first settled and named New Zealand’s spectacular landscape, and the people who settled Tasmania with their own origin myths binding them to the land.

In reality, Māori were discriminated against as a result of European occupation, and are still disadvantaged today. The Palawa were brutalised so thoroughly that they are often claimed to be an extinct people (a claim somewhat problematic to the remaining Palawa). In both cases, the cultural identities of these peoples were so threatened that what remains is the result of determined effort, most of it on their part in the face of considerable opposition.

In the Rainbow Opera duet, they simply never existed.

Oops.

I read somewhere on Livejournal (and I cannot find it now, so please view the following as unsubstantiated paraphrase from memory) a criticism much like mine: Knox’s response was something along the lines of having wanted to create a fantasy land with the same feel of place as Lewis’ Narnia, which is explicitly and unconsciously English, but with the feel of her native land – ferns and birds and the undefinable New Zealand light. She left out native New Zealanders not out of malice or of ignorance of their existence, but because if they existed in “Southland”, it would have been a land inhabited before her characters arrived, with an entirely different mythos resulting, and different characters required. I recall her writing that she knew she was not in the least qualified to write from that perspective, and thought she would do irredeemable harm in the attempt.

[ETA: Found, by coffeeandink, here! The original post is by cyphomandra, and you can see I did indeed misrepresent Knox's response.]

I can respect that position; but I am not sure that then deciding not to include them at all is a more ethical choice.

The problem is that it in the real world, it wasn’t empty land; but the European settlers often acted as if it was. Neither New Zealand nor Tasmania were terra nullius, and the Eurocentric myths of discovery and colonisation that depend upon that assumption have already done considerable damage; I don’t feel that endorsing those myths through repetition – even in fantasy, even in metaphor – is the hallmark of a moral work. I’m particularly disturbed that the naming of the land, upon which much import is placed in many stories of the Māori, is then appropriated as a power of European dreamers.

It’s difficult to make these criticisms, because Knox is a very fine writer, and in every other respect, these are excellent books. There’s criticism of sexism, of classism, and of demagoguery, and there’s also a lively and intriguing adventure with a beautiful magical system.

But I can’t get away from what’s absent: a gap in the story; a land made vacant through auctorial word and will; the people who walked there first and still, erased as if they had never been.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Knox says

    This is what I wrote. Your ‘paraphrasing’ is rather different.

    “I have been asked about the absence of the Tangata Whenua in my NZ/Tasmania-like Southland. And there were indigenous people in my early plans for Dreamhunter (though Southland was very much Tasmania at that stage, and so there was to have been a drive-them-off-the-island type genocide). But once it came clear to me that I was writing a haunted land story I also realised that if an indigenous people were present and the reason that the land was haunted wasn’t about them, then that would be worse than deciding not to have them at all. If the haunting was a result of the family spell/sandman’s promise, as it is, then any people in the story with an earlier relationship to the land would end up as a kind of a red herring. Was I prepared to make the Tangata Whenua a red herring? No, I was not! Readers would be looking for that relationship — asking themselves, ‘what has happened here to THESE people to cause this dream stuff.’ I think of this as ‘the poltergeist problem’. In the film Poltergeist the house is haunted because it has been built on an ‘old indian burial ground’. There are so many stories like this that is is almost impossible to write a haunted land story without setting up a whole lot of expectations that can only be fulfilled (in which case I’d have had to write a very different book and one that would, coming from me, be sadly lacking in authority) or disappointed.

    Imagine there are Tangata Whenua in Southland. Imagine they have an ancient relationship with the land. Then Imagine the Place–the land containing dreams– turns out to have been created by some upstart late-coming european refugees from an ecological disaster, and only so that the heroine’s sand servant could save her son. THAT would have been an odd, uncomfortable, unmotivated story. You can’t have big stuff floating around the edges of smaller stories, and I wanted to tell a small story, a family story, where the big stuff (how people should treat one another, and how society should treat its citizens) is felt though only a few relationships.

    I hope this makes sense, and helps you see a little less sin or solipsism and a little more one writer’s tricky, and considered, decision. “

  2. Gabrielle Whyte says

    It is that one! Thank you! And I see that I have indeed remembered it wrongly; for one thing, Knox writes that Southland is not New Zealand at all (which I don’t think prevents myself or other readers from seeing New Zealand in it, or addresses the problems then arising from that reading), and for another she references not Lewis, but Reeve and Nix as providing frozen North European fantasy lands.

    The most relevant part I’ll requote here:

    I have been asked about the absence of the Tangata Whenua in my NZ/Tasmania-like Southland. And there were indigenous people in my early plans for Dreamhunter (though Southland was very much Tasmania at that stage, and so there was to have been a drive-them-off-the-island type genocide). But once it came clear to me that I was writing a haunted land story I also realised that if an indigenous people were present and the reason that the land was haunted wasn’t about them, then that would be worse than deciding not to have them at all. If the haunting was a result of the family spell/sandman’s promise, as it is, then any people in the story with an earlier relationship to the land would end up as a kind of a red herring. Was I prepared to make the Tangata Whenua a red herring? No, I was not! Readers would be looking for that relationship — asking themselves, ‘what has happened here to THESE people to cause this dream stuff.’ I think of this as ‘the poltergeist problem’. In the film Poltergeist the house is haunted because it has been built on an ‘old indian burial ground’. There are so many stories like this that is is almost impossible to write a ‘haunted land’ story without setting up a whole lot of expectations that can only be fulfilled (in which case I’d have had to write a very different book and one that would, coming from me, be sadly lacking in authority) or disappointed.

    I still believe this approach does not address the issue of a story set in a terra nullius southern hemisphere land.

  3. DragonLadyK says

    I wish there was a “beta reading” service where patient members of various nations and minorities could be called upon by authors of other nations/ethnicities to check their work for believability and offensiveness. I think that if such a service was available, fewer authors would make these kinds of mistakes, and fewer authors would be completely bypassing other cultures out of fear of saying the wrong thing and being indicted all over the internet as an ignorant bigot. Such as it is, authors are completely dependent on happening to know someone who happens to be willing.

    If there is such a service available and I just haven’t seen it — which is completely possible, I freely admit — I want to know the link and why these ladies didn’t use it.

    DragonLady

  4. says

    I agree; I didn’t find Knox’s response satisfactory, either. I think I might be okay with a landscape that has Tasmanian flora and fauna, but not the exact geographical features of the land, although I’m not sure. But the amount of distance isn’t right.

  5. says

    Quick note on the timing of comments from someone behind the scenes: For anyone confused, Elizabeth Knox’s comment was caught in the moderation queue until after coffeeandink’s second comment (comment number 5), and the commenters earlier in the thread wouldn’t have seen it.

    Just wanted to clear that up for people trying to figure out who is responding to who!

  6. Fraser says

    DragonLadyK, I don’t know that would solve the problem: What some people of a nation/minority find offensive, someone else would not; what some think realistic, others would find laughable.

  7. DragonLady says

    Well, Fraser, a good beta doesn’t operate just from a one-person perspective. For example, one might say something like “I understand that your Special Olympics comment is meant to mock yourself, but parents of Special Olympics children who hear their child mocked by classmates every day will probably take your comment to mean you are demeaning the Special Olympics. You might want to pass on that, or compare yourself to one of the Three Stooges instead.”

    A beta-reading service wouldn’t eliminate the problem of people being offended — if only because there are those who look for reasons to be so — but it would reduce the instances of mindless blunders.

    It might also give people a means of addressing their ignorance/questions about race in a constructive way instead of just ignoring cultures outside their own entirely for fear of being indicted as ignorant or a bigot all across the internet. :/

    DragonLady

  8. Karakuri says

    Another problem. I don’t know how it is for others, but for me the creative process often depends on the ability to suspend self-critical thinking in a first draft. Trying to be politically correct can bog down a story, or make it completely unwritable.

  9. Gabrielle Whyte says

    That is a creative problem, certainly, but it doesn’t make the promotion of problematic and hurtful myths like the terra nullius in the final product any more ethical. Considering the implications of one’s work does indeed make it more difficult to create, but your comment implies that making work easier (by not being self-critical) is more important than not replicating oppression in one’s work.

    Ultimately, however, I’m not concerned with the first draft; I very seriously doubt I read the first drafts of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I read the published copies, and it was those that disturbed me.

    I don’t have any quarrel with anyone who writes a first draft without employing self-criticism. My critical response is to the final product, and it’s that I expect thought to have gone into. Knox clearly did think about what she was doing; she has a considered and thoughtful rationale. I don’t find it sufficient.

  10. SunlessNick says

    Trying to be politically correct can bog down a story, or make it completely unwritable.

    And why am I not surprised to see that phrase dragged out?

  11. Karakuri says

    Dragged out? I’m only speaking from experience. If, as you’re writing, you’re trying /not/ to do things in a story you otherwise would have it becomes more and more contrived. I don’t think difficulty is an issue, but genuineness may be. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment further, though I do think Knox should have known better.

  12. says

    I find that the first draft requires the suspension of all critical thinking. And because we’re all programmed with a biased view of the world from birth, it’s likely some of that bias will find its way into that draft – along with un-flawed characters, silly tropes, and so on.

    Perhaps the trick in editing that first draft is to consider potential offense landmines with the same care as we consider our use of silly tropes and characters who never make mistakes. I think most of us would notice if we’d said something very controversial about, say, Bill Gates, because we know he’s rich and can afford good lawyers if he doesn’t appreciate what we said. It’s a mistake to be less concerned about the feelings of people whom we don’t perceive as being able to come after us so easily. But it’s a natural tendency that we have to consciously remind ourselves of.

    Dragon Lady K’s beta service is a very interesting idea. I especially like the idea of having multiple people look at it from multiple angles, to avoid the “but my girlfriend/black friend/gay friend said it was okay” issue.

  13. SunlessNick says

    If, as you’re writing, you’re trying /not/ to do things in a story you otherwise would have it becomes more and more contrived.

    Your argument sounds more rational when you’re not using phrases like “politically correct.” (Which has become a Godwin-analogue these days).

    But I still agree with Gabrielle, and redirect your attention to her point here:

    My critical response is to the final product, and it’s that I expect thought to have gone into. Knox clearly did think about what she was doing; she has a considered and thoughtful rationale. I don’t find it sufficient.

  14. Zahra says

    Thanks for this post–I think it’s interested to consider this series in comparison to Wrede, and think about similaties and differences. The fact that the erasure of native peoples as a premise has popped up in more than one book by more than one author is really making me think about the importance of the empty, waiting frontier land across several colonizing cultures. And its importance in sci-fi/fantasy as a whole…

    Gabrielle and Jennifer have already made some very good points in response to Karakuri. I want to add that as a writer myself, I’ve done just that–looked at a first draft, found problems like this, tried to correct them (“The one black character in this piece really isn’t working, especially next to my fully-fleshed out main character. What’s her story? I’ll try writing the next draft from her POV.”), kept working on it, and decided whether or not the story was worth sharing.

    It is exactly the same as working on any other aspect of the fiction. Although arguably more important.

  15. Foxessa says

    I don’t get this first draft must be non-critical thinking.

    If your subconscious is erasing peoples and / or making wrong, stereotypical characters and attitudes, you got some work to do.

    To write plausibly, convincingly, of cultures into which you are not born, that you are appropriating, that isn’t something that works by the numbers.

    There is a reason that the final biggest art movement of the 20th century, the final major art movement that will be all white participants, got labeled Appropriation. It’s mostly ugly and it is the heart of what gets finally created out of colonialism and exploitation. There is no ‘there’ there. It works off images created to sell stuff, and takes what others have created and claimed it for itself. I.e. the legacy of colonialism as practiced in North America, in the white population — is no culture, only leaning on others’.

    Whereas in the colonial imperialism of Spain, which you see throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, there is this other thing called ‘creolization.’ But here in the U.S., with its protestant separation and sense of manifest destiny, progressive – linear idea of time, and absolute division via the legal systems, we don’t have that. Too bad.

    • says

      If your subconscious is erasing peoples and / or making wrong, stereotypical characters and attitudes, you got some work to do.

      Exactly – that’s what we’re acknowledging. What we’re talking about here might be described better as privilege rather than bigotry, and it takes a lot of conscious effort to eradicate it. We are programmed to (for one broad example) think the white middle class in America has it tough because they don’t have servants to do the chores. Someone who grows up white and middle class usually has a wake-up call at some point where it gets through their heads that some people have no hope in hell of a college education, let alone servants. After a lifetime of thinking, “I have it so tough”, a middle class white man who unleashes his unconscious mind to get at his best art is probably not going to find a lot of poor people floating around in there, because he wasn’t really aware of them – they were abstract shadows at the edge of his vision, at best – during his brain’s formative years.

      So yeah, in such a screwed up society, how could we not have a lot of work to do?

  16. says

    I’m a leetle confused here: you grew up with the expectation of servants? Here in the U.S.A.? Where was that?

    Sure as hades not where I grew up. Where I grew up we girls and later as wives and mothers were the servants.

    Which, of course, had a whole lot to do with me scheming to get the hades outta dodge from about 5 years old.

  17. says

    Foxessa, did I say me? I was born into a class more likely to become servants than have any. My example was hypothetical, just to illustrate privilege.

    Our whole society is designed to make life easy on some people at the expense of others. Many people must be sacrificed to lives of drudgery to keep one middle to upper class person secure and at ease. But unless that person is enlightened at some point, those sacrificed people are invisible. That’s how our society makes them be. We’re taught to pretend we don’t see janitors or homeless people or the clerk at 7-11. I bet you most people could give a better description of Bill Gates than of the Starbucks kid they’ve been buying lattes from every day for the past year. Because Bill Gates isn’t in a uniform with a cap to half-cover his face. Even though he’s a very unremarkable looking person, he’s presented in the context of someone we should pay attention to. The Starbucks worker is plug ‘n’ play – if she leaves and someone takes her place, we’re not even supposed to notice. Even poor people will often engage in this objectification, possibly under the belief it’s how you get ahead in the world – acknowledging the “right” people and ignoring the rest.

    We all have a responsibility to overcome this social conditioning. But can you open up your brain and remove it? No. So you have to settle for being conscious and using your “edit” button, whether you’re an author working on a second draft or someone at a party considering what to say.

  18. DragonLadyK says

    The Starbucks worker is plug ‘n’ play – if she leaves and someone takes her place, we’re not even supposed to notice.

    YES. THIS. Exactly. And don’t forget the idea that it’s acceptable to take out your frustrations on the clerk because s/he is “lower” on they pyramidal heirarchy than you (whereas expressing anger to those above you on the pyramid is strictly off-limits).

    Though how people can not tell the difference between Starbucks people boggles me: there is a tasteable difference between the way burristas make a drink. Some are more acrid, some more sweet, some lay heavier with the chai spice than others… There’s just no way for a burrista to be an invisible clone. The proof is in the coffee.

    DragonLady

  19. says

    OK, I’m going slightly off topic, away from a focus on Wrede or Knox and towards a focus on writing process. This is perhaps curmudgeonly of me, but I think there’s a discussion to be had here about what critical thinking really is, that could be pretty interesting.

    I’m with Foxessa: I don’t get this “must suspend all critical thinking on first draft” business either.

    In writing a first draft, you’re faced with almost limitless choices. Critical thinking is what allows us to make choices among options. I think that a lot of times, what writers call “instinct” is actually a finely honed critical faculty that, when it encounters an idea, says “omigod, that choice is FABULOUS! Try that out!”

    Later, of course, you have to be deliberate and ruthless in deciding how that choice advances your artistic goals. But even artistic goals are inflected by critical thinking–not necessarily good critical thinking, but thinking processes that have been shaped nonetheless by criteria about what’s interesting and worth creating.

    I think critical thinking is engaged not only during but BEFORE the first draft. For instance, I think certain ways of depicting and discussing women are not helpful and are not something I want to be part of my work. So I would reject certain premises for fiction from the get-go. And as I was writing a first draft, my critical thinking would direct me towards certain ways of shaping my female characters and away from others.

    I think it’s more a question of what the critical thinking is analyzing. I think in a first draft, it’s all but impossible to turn off our the larger critical assessments we’ve made about the world we live in. If you believe as an artist that there’s something fundamentally wrong with erasing an oppressed people, you probably won’t embark on a project that does just that, explicitly and intentionally–your critical thinking will not shut off long enough to let you tell yourself, “What the hell, maybe it really IS a great idea.”

    What we have to do in subsequent drafts is turn our critical thinking on our previous critical thinking.

    I think it’s true that you can use critical thinking more or less acutely, but I’m highly skeptical of the idea that people, by and large, can just turn it off, at will. If we could, meditation and mental peace would be easy–it would be no problem to sit in silence for hours a day and refrain from judging your thoughts as they enter your mind. But people work for years to achieve even fleeting moments of escape from critical thinking, from the part of our minds that says “this state/idea/feeling is superior to that state/idea/feeling, for these reasons.”

  20. says

    I think we may be talking somewhat at cross-purposes about this writing process.

    About 18 years ago, I was writing a screenplay and realized I needed another character. I began describing him in my head, making up his name and background, and suddenly a moment of enlightenment: why “him?” Why had I automatically made him a him? And white? And straight? I felt sick. I was supposed to be enlightened, and here I was being a sexist pig.

    That was the first time I realized: no matter how you’re raised to love and appreciate all people, you are also programmed with your culture’s biases.

    Nowadays, it’s second nature to consider what race and gender and sexuality my new character should have. But you know what I just recently realized? I never think about making my characters any less able-bodied than I and 99% of the people I know are. Whoops, new thing to work on.

    It’s unfortunate if my first draft makes everyone able-bodied because my culture programmed me that way and, not being perfect, I can’t just instantly overcome that. Where it would become truly my wrong, though, would be if my final draft left them out too.

    Now, where this comes into play with critical thinking: if I let myself get bogged down in researching physical disabilities I want to give to my characters in the first draft, having realized I forgot to include them, I might fail to get the story told. For me, personally, the first draft is always the hardest and it’s where I lose stories that never get written. If my first draft leaves someone out but gets the story told, that’s better than not writing it at all – so long as my next draft rectifies the failure to include. That is what *I*, at least, am talking about when I talk about suspending critical thought in the first draft. Maybe not all writers need to do that, but I do, or else my first draft never gets completed.

  21. says

    That’s what NaNoWriMo (and its cousins) are all about: circumventing that internal editor, *getting the story out* and then (hopefully) revising it or junking it and doing it better the next time.

  22. says

    For me, personally, the first draft is always the hardest and it’s where I lose stories that never get written. If my first draft leaves someone out but gets the story told, that’s better than not writing it at all – so long as my next draft rectifies the failure to include.

    for me too. And I recognize that my point may have been excessively fine and, well, curmudgeonly. Your statement that “it’s second nature to consider what race and gender and sexuality my new character should have” is what I mean about critical thinking working even on a first draft. So perhaps our positions are not as different as I initially imagined.

  23. says

    Your statement that “it’s second nature to consider what race and gender and sexuality my new character should have” is what I mean about critical thinking working even on a first draft. So perhaps our positions are not as different as I initially imagined.

    Agreed. Perhaps another way to put it is that, from the first draft, we can’t expect the apex of our critical thinking. When you get going and you’re writing full-steam, you’re limited to that which your unconscious mind has processed fully. Mine, after many years, has overcome the tendency to assume “character = white straight man” but I’ve not yet overcome the able-bodied issue. My guess is there will always be yet something else to overcome… and that’s what the next draft is for.

  24. Dan says

    “Now, where this comes into play with critical thinking: if I let myself get bogged down in researching physical disabilities I want to give to my characters in the first draft, having realized I forgot to include them, I might fail to get the story told.”

    I wonder if there’s ever been a story about a poor, fat, black, blind, retarded, jewish lesbian? Like, ever?

    Also, speaking of erased natives, you know who got a raw deal? The Moriori.

  25. Gabrielle Whyte says

    I wonder if there’s ever been a story about a poor, fat, black, blind, retarded, jewish lesbian? Like, ever?

    Also, speaking of erased natives, you know who got a raw deal? The Moriori.

    Goodness, what a completely relevant and not at all derailing comment.

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