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Intersectionality and the White Girl – Guest Blog by Alyc Helms

Intersectionality and the White Girl

Here’s the deal. I’m a white girl, and I’ve never been to China.

One of the first things people ask when they find out my book, The Dragons of Heaven, is set in China is, “Oh, have you ever been?” and all I can do is smile and say nope.

The obvious follow-up questions that most folks are too nice to ask to my face are, “Then why did you write about China?” and “What makes you qualified?” Both exceedingly valid questions that I’ve considered often throughout my writing process.

The Anthropologist in the Room

armchair

Armchair Anthropologist: scholars who came to conclusions without going through the usual field/labwork.

Part of my discomfort with the first question is that I did my undergraduate and graduate work in anthropology. I am well aware of the damage caused by 19th century ‘armchair anthropologists’ asserting their theories without ever visiting the countries or people they were theorizing about. These theories were used to legitimate and perpetuate colonial practices throughout the non-European world. The driving purpose behind anthropological fieldwork and participant observation was that you learn things on the ground that you can never learn from books.

However… I did my undergraduate and graduate work in anthropology. Specifically, I focused on issues of identity and representation. That gave me a strong foundation for considering the tropes that get dragged out when Asian people are represented in popular contemporary media.

One of those tropes was the gestational seed of The Dragons of Heaven. In the trope, the hero goes to the Orient ™, gains mastery over the Ancient Eastern Wisdom ™, and returns home having taken what he needed, but not leaving anything of himself behind. He remains unchanged by the experience save for his acquired mastery (and possibly an acquired and always-irrational nemesis). It’s a very colonialist sort of narrative.

Totally unbelievable, I thought. Nobody who goes traveling returns unchanged. Sometimes, they don’t return at all.

First Person, Many Perspectives

BruceLee

Alyc was aware of the stereotypical representations of Asian characters during her writing process

An acquaintance who was letting me yammer at them about my book asked me if all my characters knew kung-fu, and I was pleased to respond that no, they did not (and this even though the book is thoroughly pulp-adventure, where such universal knowledge might get a pass). Although the question was posed flippantly, it spoke to another concern I tried to keep aware of through the writing and revision process: stereotypical representations of Asian characters.

Most of the characters in the novel are Asian. Not just Chinese, but Chinese-American, Korean-American, Japanese-American, and so on. I even dig a little into the differences and prejudices that exist between different Chinese ethnicities. My biggest concern was that I was writing real, fleshed out people rather than perpetuating the popular stereotypes. I made use of a lot of great academic and popular media criticism to catch myself from slipping into lazy writing.

The one place where I pulled back on representation was with Missy, my protagonist. She is not Chinese. Including a wide range of perspectives and voices is vital for creating a rich, realistic reading experience that reflects the world we live in. It helps to embed the fantasy in reality. However, there is a line between making sure I’m representing those perspectives and taking on an Asian voice in a first-person narrative, and it’s a line I was not comfortable crossing.

The White Savior Issue

Detective-Girl

Not every problem is solvable by the protagonist…

The challenge I run into by having a white protagonist is that readers expect a protagonist to… y’know… protag. This immediately slams face-first into the issue of the white savior trope. That’s when a white person comes along, becomes better than all the brown people at being a brown person, and then solves all the brown peoples’ problems for them. Another colonialist narrative in new clothes.

I was hyper-aware of this conflict, and my solution was to make Missy the sort of character who was also aware of it. Missy is an idealist who wants to make the world a better place, and part of her arc is solving the problems that her good intentions create – and sometimes learning that not every problem is hers to solve.

The Magic Bullet

2012 APR Reality - Books by MoonIsSingingPhotos

Alyc made sure that she read as thoroughly and as widely as she could.

So how do you write about another culture when you haven’t grown up in it (or at least lived in it for a long time)? I don’t have a right answer, and I definitely don’t have an easy answer. My approach was to read. Read a lot. I read foundational texts, folklore, literature, trashy novels. I read critical theory and histories and anthropological monographs. I read translated works by Chinese authors and works by Chinese-Americans and works by academics who have thought way longer and harder than I have about representation. I read with a critical eye, looking for unspoken assumptions, narrative patterns, cultural trends, all the tools that a participant observer would use, even though I was using them from my armchair.

I’ve also had some wonderful beta-readers to fact and privilege-check me, including Asian readers and people who have lived in China (always with the understanding that they were providing their individual perspectives rather than acting as spokespeople for over half the world’s population).

I still don’t feel like I read enough, so I also don’t have a right answer for when to stop reading and start writing. I’ve listed a partial bibliography on my website that is by no means comprehensive (nor does it include any of the foundational works I read during my graduate and undergrad days). I think at some point you need to put yourself out there, say what you’ve got to say, and take your knocks. But you never stop reading, and you never stop learning.

How to Ally?

Like Missy, I want to be the change I want to see in the world. As a writer, that means writing a cast of characters from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Doing so requires cultural research, consideration and self-education regarding issues of representation, the acknowledgment that you’re going to fuck up, and the willingness to try anyways. I can’t say if I succeeded with The Dragons of Heaven, but I did my damnedest. And I would rather try, fail, learn, and try harder next time than write stories that only speak to my own experience and the experiences of people like me.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 08.24.35Would you deal with the devil to save the world?

Street magician Missy Masters inherited more than the usual genetic cocktail from her estranged grandfather – she also got his preternatural control of shadow and his legacy as the vigilante hero, Mr Mystic. Problem is, being a pulp hero takes more than a good fedora and a knack for witty banter, and Missy lacks the one thing Mr. Mystic had: experience. Determined to live up to her birthright, Missy journeys to China to seek the aid of Lung Huang, the ancient master who once guided her grandfather.

Lung Huang isn’t quite as ancient as Missy expected, and she finds herself embroiled in the politics of Lung Huang and his siblings, the nine dragon-guardians of creation. When Lung Di, Lung Huang’s brother and mortal enemy, raises a magical barrier that cuts off China from the rest of the world, it falls to the new Mr Mystic to prove herself by taking down the barrier. But is it too great a task for a lone adventure hero?

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7 Comments

  1. […] up on my cover reveal, Fantasy Faction is featuring a guest post from me where I talk about writing diverse casts, representation, and avoiding problematic […]

  2. Avatar Martin says:

    Sounds like a fun book, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a Kindle version being published, at least one that shows for Australians. This is the third new release in the last fortnight in this situation, don’t publishers want to sell us books?

    • Avatar Caroline Lambe says:

      Hi Martin,

      Angry Robot Books publish in Kindle; this book will appear on Amazon.com.au at the beginning of publication month, June.

      If there are any of our books you can’t access on Kindle in Australia, please drop me a line on caroline.lambe@angryrobotbooks.com.

      Thanks,
      Caroline

  3. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    Excellent article, and very relevent to my interests. This is similar to something I’ve mentally wrestled with for a while now, my interest in certain cultures and languages that I often see represented badly in the fiction I read. Am I fluent in Japanese and have spent years living in Japan? No. (Though it’s not for lack of desire, lemme tell you!) But despite that I seem to be able to point out a lot of errors in books that go over the heads of most, except for people I talk to who have been there. I’m not exactly greatly qualified to give cultural and language lessons, and I don’t pretend to be, but I do have enough experience to point out some issues that seem to crop up a lot.

    “So how do you write about another culture when you haven’t grown up in it (or at least lived in it for a long time)?”

    Personally, I’ve found that aside from books, other forms of media are great for a bit of immersion, especially when you’re trying to get a handle on cultures. Watching popular TV shows and moves not only has exposed me to many of the differences between how I live and how others halfway around the world live, but also helped me get good clues on why such shows are popular, why they speak to certain audiences. All great things. And my linguistic abilities have increased accordingly. Maybe this makes me something of an armchair anthropologist, I don’t know. I certainly do a lot of learning from my comfortable recliner, and I haven’t gone out and done fieldwork, but I do try to get what exposure and perspective I can, and it’s amazing what opportunities are available if you know where to look and approach with the intent of understanding and not just idly watching.

    I’m probably saying all this very badly. End comment, before I get myself in trouble. :p

  4. Avatar Celine says:

    Fantastic post. I’ve always wondered how people use their academic education in their writing – especially when that education touches on humanities, post colonialism, sociology, anthropology, or religious studies. They all provide such a fascinating insight into the nature of human life that could be so useful in fiction writing.

  5. Avatar Eric Jackson says:

    “Missy is an idealist who wants to make the world a better place, and part of her arc is solving the problems that her good intentions create – and sometimes learning that not every problem is hers to solve.”

    This is an excellent way to address the ‘white savior’ issue. Also in my eyes, there’s also nothing wrong with an outsider helping. They could bring an missing element or outlook that helps the ‘natives’ solve it themselves. It takes the focus off ‘superiority’ and puts it into cooperation.

    This works well in reverse too, but needs to be careful not to fall into the ‘Magical Negro’ trope. 🙂

  6. […] eine sehr empfehlenswerte Website. Im März ist dort beispielsweise auch  “Intersectionality and the White Girl” von Alyc Helms veröffentlicht worden. Im zweiten Teil  des Artikels setzt die Autorin ein wenig […]

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