Tag Archives: colonialism

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.

Looking into the heart of light, the silence

Colonisation is violence, and there are many ways to carry out that violence. – Philip Gourevitch

It’s no small thing that I quote from Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families at the beginning of my story in We See a Different Frontier, “A Heap of Broken Images”. Read in a summer off from college, it’s a book that has stayed with me in all the years since. Some of it is naturally the sheer horror of the subject matter – wrenching and vivid without feeling prurient, the descriptions of the Rwandan genocide nevertheless slotted neatly into a blood-soaked part of me that has been there since I was very small. I think this is part of why I wrote the story that I did and part of why I continue to write the stories that I do – I’m fascinated by evil, and the evil that most fascinates me is not supernatural in origin but evil in all its everyday mundane banality, the fundamentally casual nature of an attempt to erase an entire people. Supernatural evil always seemed to me like a cop-out, a way to avoid the real problem.

So as a child I was fascinated by the Holocaust. I devoured books, though somehow I never had the strength for films; books were approachable and at the same time immensely more horrific, a kind of horror that I could soak in without the onslaught of images. And yet there were images too; in middle school I discovered Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, and my fascination with mass death expanded into the practice of warfare itself. These images were somehow a middle ground between film and prose – I could still use them to approach the truth, to go into dark places.

It was probably at this point that I began to intuit the second thing that has lingered with me long after finishing Gourevitch’s book: the inability to approach the truly evil, the desolate tyranny of silence that reigns when we run out of words – or can’t find them at all. We tell stories as a way to, in the words of Douglas Adams, “sidle up to the problem sideways when it’s not looking” but in the end it always sees us, and we look back, struck dumb.

It shouldn’t escape us, then: the violence inherent not only in silence but in words, not only in seeing but in being seen. Colonialism is an orgy of violence in every sense, violence physical, psychological, emotional, cultural, environmental. All colonialism is, to a greater or lesser extent, a kind of genocide in that the ultimate aim is to cripple or destroy an entire people; all too often throughout history it has been devastatingly effective. It’s a violence that is also fundamentally atemporal: as culture and history are erased, the past is destroyed, with the loss of the past, there is no sense to be made of the present, and without the past or the present the future becomes mutilated and distorted. It’s not enough to call these effects scars, because a scar only becomes a scar when it has healed – it would be more accurate to describe them as rips in the fabric of reality itself, bloody gashes through which something horrible creeps. It’s too simplistic to say that “violence begets violence” – violence is violence and violence devours everything. Violence erases meaning.

Years later, early in my graduate studies, I encountered Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, another book that’s stayed with me. In the book’s first section, Scarry draws distinctions and connections between warfare and torture, and makes the point that nuclear war is where the lines become hopelessly blurred. Beginning with a singular devastating event, the effects of a nuclear strike don’t end with the fallout; as I had already learned from Nakazawa, the effects go on and on for years, lingering in cells and psyches, destroying lives long after the conflict itself is over. Scarry talks as if nuclear war was unique in this respect.

But I think we know it’s not.

How do we talk about this? Where do we find the words?

What I was trying to do in “A Heap of Broken Images” was not to approach the unapproachable but instead to capture the impossibility of approach. My main character, Shairoven, struggles to make sense of the massacre perpetrated on her people by human colonists, and she does do within the context of a culture that makes this nearly impossible – literally without words to describe the feelings of rage and loss that accompany such an atrocity, there is nothing to say about it. The humans themselves certainly don’t help matters, with their empty gestures and their clumsy attempts at owning what they’ve done while declaring that it’s all right now and clearly it will never happen again. They study the killing as if it were something separate from themselves, as if they were impartial and unconnected observers.

One of the story’s early scenes is nearly lifted wholesale from what was, for me, one of the most devastating images from Gourevitch’s book, where the bones of the dead are viewed where they’ve fallen in a classroom, scattered and clean and strangely lovely:

The dead at Nyarubuye were, I’m afraid, beautiful. There was no getting around it. The skeleton is a beautiful thing. The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility of their rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture there – these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place. I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I also wanted an excuse to look a bit more closely.

We went through the first room and out the far side. There was another room and another and another and another. They were all full of bodies, and more bodies were scattered in the grass, which was thick and wonderfully green. Standing outside, I heard a crunch. The old Canadian colonel stumbled in front of me, and I saw, though he did not notice, that his foot had rolled on a skull and broken it. For the first time at Nyarubuye my feelings focused, and what I felt was a small but keen anger at this man. Then I heard another crunch, and felt a vibration underfoot. I had stepped on one, too.

In “A Heap of Broken Images”, what makes confronting the massacre so difficult for us as humans is that we face our own complicity, and our first and strongest instinct is to escape self-incrimination. But there are the bones and there are the broken skulls, and we can’t help but look. And here am I, a white Westerner, existing in the context of a society wherein I have benefited indirectly but greatly from colonialism as an ongoing historical process, as real violence done to real people who I will never meet. So I consider the humans in my story and I think that maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. Maybe their task – and it’s the most difficult task in many ways, not that they deserve sympathy – is to listen.

And here is where I perceive a flaw in the story: Shairoven and her people don’t speak about the massacre because they lack the words, but the words were not taken away from them by the colonizers; they never had them to begin with. I am sitting here in a world in which my people have stolen words, violated words, erased words, and left our victims to scream into the tyranny of that silence, unheard.

It is possible to use stories to break that silence. They might be one of the few things that can.