Writing Wednesdays: Complicity, Responsibility, and Rue

Welcome back to Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’ll be honest: I really wasn’t expecting to tie my Writing Wednesdays post into the movie or the book. I’ve already talked about the influence The Hunger Games and its sequels had on Fall – namely, the realization that the present tense could make for perfectly valid and even compelling narrative, and I didn’t need to feel awkward about using it. So when it came time to figure out what else I could say about The Hunger Games and the writing process, I drew a blank.

And then the Internet happened.

As I said previously, I went to see the movie last Saturday, and while I had some reservations, I freaking loved it. Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue, was a pretty big part of that. I noted in my review that Rue’s story in the book, while sad and compelling, didn’t actually make me cry (I think I did get a bit sniffly, but my full-out sobbing moment came two books later, in Mockingjay). The film was a different story: when the climactic moment came, I broke down completely. During the scenes that followed, I lost it. And I do think it was in large part because Amandla Stenberg so perfectly embodied Rue. She gave a face and a voice to the character. A person I had only seen in the abstract, in the depths of my imagination, became real. If I could give her a standing ovation right the hell now, I would. You know what, let’s call this a virtual standing ovation. Brava. Seriously, fantastic job.

This little girl didn't tug at your heartstrings? Really? REALLY?

Imagine my shock, outrage and sadness when I discovered that countless assholes on the Internet were tweeting and blogging about their anger over Rue’s casting. Colorlines has a great article about this. You can also read about it on Feministing. Or on Alyssa’s blog at ThinkProgress. Or you can just check out the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr. But to sum up: people were awful about this. There were people on Twitter who said Amandla Stenberg’s role as Rue ruined the movie for them. Others said that they were no longer saddened by Rue’s story – or they were no longer as saddened – when they saw her as black. Still others flat-out denied that Rue was black at all.

All things considered, it put me in mind of the ridiculous, overblown ‘controversy’ over the casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall in Thor…except, in this case, the outrage is even more outrageous because yes, for God’s sake, Rue is black! At the very least, she’s clearly a person of color. The Hunger Games, page 98, where Rue is first described:

I […] see the little girl from District 11 standing back a bit, watching us. She’s the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with her arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.

Emphasis mine, naturally. So these jerks are not only openly racist – they completely fail at reading comprehension. But you know what, let’s leave aside the fact that yes, Rue is a person of color. Even if her race wasn’t described in the book – even if she was explicitly described as white – the casting of Amandla Stenberg would be perfectly valid and, in fact, praiseworthy.

We live in a country where Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood and his murderer may not even be arrested, let alone prosecuted. We live in a country where Shaima Alawadi was beaten to death in her own home, her body discovered by her 17-year-old daughter along with a note telling the family to go back to Iraq, and the authorities think it might be a hate crime. I love my country. I do. I believe in the promise of the United States of America. But we have a problem with race. The whole Western world has a problem with race.

And that problem becomes especially egregious when we consider Hollywood and all its works. It is damned hard to be a person of color in Hollywood. When the film and television industry deigns to cast people of color at all, they are all too frequently delivery people, waiters, terrorists, criminals, token sidekicks…rarely, if ever, leading men and women. Rarely, if ever, characters with really meaty, vitally important roles (unless, again, they’re terrorists or criminals). And you know what? Popular culture influences culture, full stop. When we’re constantly told that people who look like THIS are criminals, people who look like THAT are terrorists, and if they’re not, well, it’s perfectly okay to ignore them…that sinks in. That’s precisely what at least some of us start to believe. I want to believe that things are getting better. I truly, deeply want to believe that. But I cannot afford to wave these concerns off. None of us can.

As a white person, I have the luxury of ‘not seeing race’. That is privilege in its most basic form. I have the luxury of looking at all-white casts and going, ‘okay, well, race wasn’t specified and those were the best people for the job, right?’ I live in a magical fairyland where people who look like me are the default. I lack privilege in other areas, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean I get to ignore the privileges I enjoy as a white American from a middle-class background. That doesn’t mean I get to fall into the trap of going with the default, where the default is white.

How does this tie back into writing? Well. I’m a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I love pretty much everything of hers I’ve read, but more importantly, I admire her convictions – her determination to break out of the mold, to refuse to accept the white person as default, to include people of color, people of all backgrounds, in her stories. She’s opened up and talked about race here and there. She’s talked about wanting people who are not white, who are not among the people in power, to see themselves reflected in her stories. That’s something I want to do, too. Hell, that’s half the reason I’m writing Fall: I wanted to write a story for people like me. I wanted to see gay relationships reflected in supernatural romance. If I fail to include others in my world – if I fail to show a broader spectrum of human experience – then it’s just that: failure.

I was trying to articulate this to a friend last night. I’m not sure I succeeded, but what I said was this: the world is a mess. And if we all look at that mess and say that we didn’t cause it, that it’s not our problem, that we’re not going to take responsibility for it, then nothing is ever going to get better. I mean, I’m a person of faith, but the cold, hard truth is that we know nothing about this world except that we’re here, now, and it’s kind of screwed up. Our first duty is to make things better. Here. Now. On this planet, in this lifetime. We can’t do that by ignoring the problems. We can’t do that by denying our complicity. We have to take responsibility for what we write, what we put on film, what we draw, what we create in any way, shape or form. As creators, we have to capture some part of a whole big wide world. It is terrifying. But it is vitally important.

And if readers don’t get it? If they reject that? Well, that’s on them. Some minds are bound to stay closed. Maybe we’ll open others, if we do it right. Suzanne Collins included a little girl with brown skin who stirred readers’ sympathies to the point where several of us cried at the end of her story. Some readers rejected that premise – at least once they saw the film and realized that, horror of horrors, they were sympathizing with a black girl. Pardon my French, but fuck them. Fuck that.

The central characters of Ten Witch Grave have brown skin. And while I have struggled with issues of race in Fall, given its white protagonist and its themes of Irish mythology and the Irish diaspora, I’m including people of color there, too, because – surprise! – they freaking exist, and when I deny that, when I ignore that, I am part of the problem. And if ever the books take off, if ever the film versions are made, and my so-called ‘fans’ go off about how they lost sympathy for those characters, how they thought the mere presence of people of color ruined the story, how they don’t believe the characters I clearly and explicitly defined as people of color actually are…then those are not my fans. Those are assholes.

This is a tricky issue. I get that. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. And, while including the whole range of human diversity, we have to be careful not to cross the line into cultural appropriation. But God damn it all – we have to try. If we fail, then we pick ourselves up. We listen, and we learn from our mistakes, and we go on and do better. But if we don’t try, then we are complicit. We have helped make the world just a little bit worse.

Try to make the world better. However you do it. Words and images have power, and as someone once said, with great power comes great responsibility. As writers, as artists, as creators, and as consumers of content, be responsible. Don’t be an asshole. Okay?

EDIT: Since first writing this post, I’ve come across Amandla Stenberg’s own statement to US Weekly regarding the racist tweets. I apologize for the omission. And, while a cursory reader might be forgiven for thinking the statement is awfully generic, I read it as a really classy way of pointing out that the people who flipped out over this don’t really deserve to be considered part of the Hunger Games fan community, and the actual fans are the ones who matter here. Way to go, Ms. Stenberg. 🙂

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Writing Wednesdays: All The Small Things

In the past, I’ve remarked that I would very much like to be Neil Gaiman when I grow up. I do not, of course, mean that I would like to be a middle-aged man with perpetually untidy black hair, a keen wit, and a ridiculously awesome English accent, though of course some of these things are indeed things I envy and/or aspire to. (I currently have perpetually untidy red hair. It’s very different.) No, what I admire about Neil Gaiman is this: he is, I daresay, the authorial version of the Renaissance man. He’s worked in a vast array of media – comics, prose, poetry, music, beekeeping – and it’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure there’s anything he can’t do. That’s the course I’d like my career to take. Ten, twenty, thirty years down the line, I’d like to look back and say that, yes, I, too, have done a little bit of everything.

Except the beekeeping. I have a deathly fear of bees. …I probably shouldn’t admit that kind of thing on the open Internet.

I realize I’m burying the lede, here, so let me get to the point: the stories we tell, the shapes those stories take, are determined by a million different decisions. Some of them are quite big and obvious. Medium, of course, plays a central role in the final development of a story. A film is not the same animal as a short story, a novel, or even a television show. But some of the decisions you’ll make will be smaller. Subtler. They are, nevertheless, vitally important, and at every turn, in considering every aspect of your tale, you should ask yourself how this choice or that will alter your story. Will it make your job easier? Will it help you tell the story you want to tell? If your choices are going to make the story more difficult for you to write, then why are you making those particular decisions? What benefit will you gain, and how will it outweigh the costs?

Case in point: my two major projects, Ten Witch Grave and FallTen Witch Grave is the working title of my children’s book, something that I hope will follow in the footsteps of His Dark Materials and Stardust. It’s currently on the back burner, though I’m planning to return to it after I’m done with Fall, and I hope to have it done by the time my niece (currently around 23 months old) is old enough to appreciate chapter books. Structurally, it’s very much a traditional novel: I’m writing in the third person, limited omniscient, past tense, all that. Narratively it reads like a fairy tale, which of course it is, to some degree. All well and good.

Fall is quite a different animal. It’s in the first person, told entirely from the perspective of my heroine, Bree, and thus it follows that the information available to her (and thus the reader) at any given time is limited. It’s also in the present tense.

I always saw the present tense as gimmicky at best. When I was younger, any book written in the present tense had to work that much harder to win me over. I vividly recall a silly little science fiction novel called This Place Has No Atmosphere which I did, ultimately, enjoy in all its corny, fluffy glory – but only after resisting the impulse to take the book straight back to the library after discovering it was written in the present tense. Even now, looking back, I wonder why the author made that decision, because I don’t think it served the book well. And while I liked the book, at the time, it reinforced my perception of the present tense as inherently artificial and hokey, something done in a flawed attempt to grab the reader’s attention or experiment with the narrative, seldom if ever yielding positive results.

This led to something of a crisis of faith when I started thinking about Fall and came to the realization that it would work so much better in the present tense – that, indeed, I wasn’t sure I could write the same story in the past tense.

Luckily, it was around this time that my friend Katie came to my rescue again. You may recall that I was inspired to write Fall after I read the Twilight series – entirely Katie’s fault, but since it did inspire my current project and it led me into the rather amusing world of Twilight fanfic, I’ve since forgiven her. (The jury is still out on her decision to expose me to His Dark Materials, which made me cry like a baby at the end, but I guess that’s inspired its own projects, so I have to let her off the hook for that one, too.) Katie ultimately made up for the aforementioned atrocities by making me read The Hunger Games, which also made me cry, but in a good, cathartic kind of way. More importantly, it showed me that the present tense was not a gimmick. It could be done well. In fact, it could be the only viable choice for some stories. Can you imagine that book, or its sequels, written in the past tense? Would the events therein have carried the same sense of immediacy? Would we have believed that literally anything could happen to Katniss if she was narrating those events from some undefined future date? I won’t say that Suzanne Collins couldn’t have written The Hunger Games in the past tense – but it would have been a very different series.

Similarly, the more time I spend with Fall, the more I realize that I can’t tell that story any other way, either. It has to be in the first person: this is Bree’s story, the tale of a girl coming to terms with her past and her future, discovering her roots and forging a new destiny for herself and the people she loves. It’s a lot of other things as well, but at its core, it’s Bree’s tale to tell, and no one else’s. And it is important – vital – that I as the writer and you all as the readers take that journey with Bree. This is not a story she’s going to tell at some unspecified future date – or, if she does, she’ll be editing it and censoring herself heavily. This is a story we will only get if we’re inside Bree’s head as it happens.

I talk a good game, but I have to admit I faltered on these points recently. Someone (I’m honestly not sure who) told me that they were surprised at my use of present tense and found it odd, and all my old doubts came rushing back. I tried writing a chapter in past tense, and it was like writing with one hand tied behind my back – and, more importantly, the prevailing opinion was that the story worked much better in present tense. Will I give up the faith again? Maybe. But maybe that’s not the end of the world, either.

Your story is not a breath of divine inspiration. Nor is mine. They do not, they will not, emerge fully formed from our brows. Neither are they flat-pack furniture: we can’t pull them off a shelf and assemble them from the standardized instructions with the standardized tools. Rather, we should think of our stories as the vast, complicated machines they are, sprawling devices full of moving parts. We must, with the utmost care, select just the right tools and parts for the job. We must make no assumptions. We must question every choice we make: structure, character, plot, narrative, dialogue, all of it. Only then will our stories function properly.

Don’t go with the crowd just because it’s the ‘default’ choice. Make your own decisions. Find your own voice. And keep at it. But that’s probably another post entirely.