In the Roots: being privileged and writing problematic

Note: I waffled a good bit about writing this. Then I waffled a bit about posting it. The general rule of thumb is to not engage with reviews beyond a polite “thank you”. That said, I think there’s some stuff here that deserves consideration and discussion, and that I want to address.

Yesterday Dear Author reviewed Line and Orbit. I think it’s a great review – thoughtful, fair, and full of that which ideally all authors want: useful, constructive feedback. Sunita liked some stuff, didn’t like other stuff, and it’s all good. But there’s something she said that bothered me deeply at the time, and is still bothering me a lot: That the Bideshi, my nomadic space-faring magic-users, align at least somewhat with the problematic-and-tired “noble savage” trope.

It didn’t bother me because I thought she was wrong. It bothers me because I think she’s right.

Let’s rewind a bit. I’ve said more than once that when you’re a white, privileged Westerner – which I am – and you’re writing about things like race and colonialism, you’re going to get stuff wrong. It’s just a matter of time. It’s very easy to say that, easy to recognize that it’s true. It’s much harder, when the time comes, to admit to your own fuck-up. It’s harder still to take it and try to learn from it, to grow.

Line and Orbit was a debut novel written by two white people, five years ago. I say this to provide context, because it was written at a time when I was just starting out in my sociology PhD program, when I was getting my first serious exposure to critical race theory and intersectionality and postcolonialism, when I was first reading people like Franz Fanon and Achille Mbembe and Arturo Escobar. I was just self-aware enough to realize that this stuff was changing me, that was stuff that, if I was going to take my own writing seriously, I had to write about. But self-awareness is not an event. It’s a process. And when you’re coming from a position of privilege, even when you’re undergoing that process, there are things you won’t be able to see. There will be things you miss. There will be things you get wrong. This is in no way an excuse; it’s a warning that I wish I could go back five years and deliver to myself and my co-author.

As we were writing Line and Orbit, I was becoming aware of the noble savage trope, of how not-good it is, and also of how pervasive it is, of how it touches a more profoundly culturally ingrained story that white Westerners like to tell ourselves and have been telling ourselves since we started ruining other continents. It’s one of those deep stories, those folktales that show up everywhere. It’s the Hero’s Journey of white colonialism.

So I was at least sort of aware of it. To some degree, I was conscious of the alignment to it in the book. I hoped to subvert it in some ways – Adam is not much in the way of a super-Bideshi, he doesn’t do everything they do but much better, but that’s not all there is to the trope, and now, looking back on it, I have to concede that if we were trying to subvert it, we weren’t entirely successful. It’s there, and it’s not being questioned particularly hard, if at all.

Are you ready for the irony? I hate that trope. I fucking hate it. True fact: Avatar came out halfway through writing the book, and I think my exact words were “oh, fuck no.”

And yet it’s there. I love the Bideshi so much, I love those characters and that world, they’re so dear to my heart, but I’m looking at it, and… Yep.

This is the great irony of subtle racism and the colonialism that is its ugly sibling. Even if you hate it, even if you want to end it, it works its way in there. It’s insidious. It’s a cultural disease, a miasma in the air that we – that I – have been breathing since I was born. And if you’re privileged, especially if you’re white, it’s deep in you, so deep – so in the roots, as Ixchel would say – that it can take a lifetime to dig it out, and before you can do that you have to see all of it, which is nearly impossible.

But you have to try. If you don’t, you don’t grow. We only grow with friction. We only evolve when someone or something comes along and makes us do so.

So now I’m faced with a choice. I can ignore that it’s there and carry on as before, or I can look harder, try harder, grow.

I can also just not write about this stuff anymore, run no risks, not tell the stories that I feel like I need to tell. But that doesn’t seem like a solution to me. I think my initial impulse five years ago was a good one. Running away from this kind of thing seems like cowardice. I want to keep writing about race, about class and gender and disability, and the marginalized, the oppressed, the voiceless. Doing so when you’re someone like me is fraught with problems and peril, but I think turning away is the wrong move, because then I never have to confront anything. I never have to grow. There will be deeply uncomfortable moments like this… and I think I have to be okay with that. I think I have to learn how to be.

So I appreciate this. I appreciate the opportunity. I hope I’ll do better. I hope you’ll all come with me, and help me understand when I’m less than successful.

Otherwise I don’t think there’s much point to this wacky journey at all.

3 responses to “In the Roots: being privileged and writing problematic

  1. Holy crap, am I just wrestling with this exact problem in my WIP. It was written and developed before I thought deeply about such things, and even as I revised it last year (from scratch) and tried to recast things to so as to avoid a certain racial/colonialist trope, I think I failed.
    The hard thing is that there is a lot in the novel that I am proud of, that is working (finally) — but I don’t want it to go out into the world if it is going to perpetuate some racist or demeaning trope.
    I can see I am going to need another critical pair of eyes on it to figure out how to fix it.

  2. Sunny Moraine

    It’s a huge problem, yeah, especially if it *is* something that you love and are proud of. I love LINE AND ORBIT. I think it’s a really great book. But I also have to own this, so how do I reconcile those things? And I’m still not sure. I think… you just keep trying. And not that anyone should get ally cookies, but I think trying and failing is more admirable than not trying at all.

  3. Yeah, that is what I feel, too. I am not trying to tell anyone else’s story, but I feel avoiding certain topics I feel strongly about just contributes to an ongoing silencing of people. Speaking for myself, I am horrified by Canada’s legacy of residential schools and what it has done to generations of people. So in my stories I am trying to write about that or at least examine what it has done. Not because I think no one else is doing it, but because I see way too many dismissive comments or articles that try to minimize it or ignore it — and that kind of “be quiet, it’s all in the past” attitude burns me up. I know I’m going to get things wrong no matter how much research I do, but I still think it’s important to not contribute to that silencing.

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