I tell you what: since moving here I have developed a tremendous amount of sympathy for the martians from War of the Worlds. Stateside I am someone with an unusually strong immune system for having an autoimmune disease and all the complications that entails; in five years of working for the same company I think I took a grand total of four sick days. When I did get sick from something it was usually strong enough to leave me bedridden for a day or two and feeling like the grim reaper was gently stroking my front lobe. I never got a mild sore throat, I got some horrible mutant virus that made me sound like I belonged to a Tom Waits cover band. I never got a stomach ache, I got something that made me wonder if I was having some kind of pouchitis flareup that would recover a hospital visit. The logical result of a childhood spent playing in the woods and swimming in leech-infested lakes (as you do in Maine) was developing a nice immuno-shell where only the nastiest stuff would break through.
Compare to here where I’ve gotten sick more times in the last five months than the last ten years combined. It really drives home how far I’ve moved away that I don’t have as many defenses built up against what are probably relatively benign viruses and bacteria here. This week I’ve had a weird sore throat that has me feeling extremely phlegmy and stings in one area in particular, almost like I’ve developed some kind of canker halfway down my throat (I haven’t, I checked with a flashlight and a mirror already). It’s getting better after a couple days of dosing myself with extra vitamin C and being careful not to eat anything that would irritate it too much, but it feels utterly alien to me to get something so… mild? Like, sometimes I will forget that I’ve moved to the opposite side of the planet and from one of the northernmost regions in the USA to a subtropical region, because it’s very much a product of shared western culture and I can walk down the streets and see a
McDonalds Macca’s across from a Starbucks like I’m in downtown New York. And then, all of a sudden, a stark reminder that while my conscious mind has done a pretty good job at adjusting and utilizing that wonderful human trick where you automatically compare every new thing to something banal you’ve experienced in the past (“oh, this neighborhood is just like the Boston financial district / I feel like I’m walking along the Alameda bay again! / this square is two towers away from being Battery Park!”) my white blood cells are currently flipping the fuck out and the red alert sirens from Star Trek are blaring as they try to repel monstrous invaders they’ve never heard of before.
There’s no graceful way to segue into the second half of my post, so this is going to be an even more disjointed one than normal.
Anyone who has known me for more than a few minutes knows that I am very passionate about representation, especially in writing and fiction. I’ve touched on it before and I’m sure I will again and again in the future. For me, reading is about escaping what I know and immersing myself in new places and new minds. Even viewing a familiar place or concept from a new set of eyes is escapism enough for me and gives me a better understanding of it, adds infinite new dimensions. I could read fifty different peoples’ descriptions of a glass of water and suddenly know a little bit more about each of those fifty people from the words they use, you know? So when that pool of descriptors is narrowed by problems within the system that should be embracing and encouraging diversity, it really bothers me a lot. Some of the most influential writers in my life only made it onto the bookshelves by beating odds that shouldn’t have been so stacked against them in the first place and I hate thinking about how many other writers I may have missed out on because their books either didn’t get picked up, or were picked up and not allotted decent marketing because of assumptions that writers of their race, gender or any other defining feature would not sell well enough to justify that much of a budget or shelf space.
Case in point are two articles I read in the last week that really reminded me just how stark things can be, one on race and one on gender. They are intrinsically tied together while being individual problems, ones that should be addressed.
First, an article from The Mary Sue talking about a recent study on acceptance and publication rates of black-penned speculative fiction. As they acknowledge, there are some issues with how reliant the study is on self-reporting, but only 38 published pieces out of 2000 examples. That’s absurd. That’s gatekeeping at work, less than 2% of a group’s stories through. This is not to say that anyone involved is openly, overtly or even knowingly racist, it’s a systemic problem with the ways that demographics are regarded and approached. I’d bet (well, hope) that no one is going “ugh, black writer” and chucking a manuscript in the bin, but there are preconceived notions about what will and won’t sell and black speculative fiction is apparently thought of as the latter, even with black protagonists beginning to take more and more of a center stage in television and film. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of cases, too – the pieces that do get accepted aren’t going to receive as much advertising as more mainstream genres and story types, and so less people stumble on them and buy them, and they maintain that reputation of being exceedingly niche books that don’t sell well. Presumably if you’re following my blog you’re a fellow reader, and someone who is interested in reading as far and wide as I do. There’s something we can do about this, and that is voting with the dollar. Seek out black spec lit and buy it. You’re going to go off the beaten trail a little bit and rely on word of mouth more often than not, but it’s doable. Go read Nnedi Okorafor, read Kai Ashante Wilson, read NK Jemisin, read Steven Barnes, Nisi Shawl, Delany and Butler. Go pick up Ytasha Womack’s collection on afrofuturism and black or intersectional feminism. Go read the new Black Panther series, probably the best thing Marvel has put out since Journey into Mystery’s 2011 arc. If this stuff starts selling well they’ll start publishing more of it, and for the most part I’ve found books from other races and cultures to be tremendously satisfying and mind-expanding reads that make me reconsider the fundamentals of my life and attitudes.
The second article, and a much longer one but well worth the read, is an examination of how Stieg Larsson’s work has shaped Nordic Noir as a genre and in many cases overshadowed equally talented and old female writers. It’s an intensely interesting piece to me, as someone who has very mixed feelings about Larrson’s books; I think they’re great noir novels but I find that the feminist aspect of it is distinctly male in how it’s presented, and while it’s written from the perspective of an ally it comes off much more as painting how good it is to be an ally rather than talking up any of the core concepts of feminism or trying to make them available to the reader as an undertone, other than a very simple reading of many problems women encounter in Swedish culture, despite it generally being thought of as very progressive-minded by many. That’s not to say it is a bad book or that what it teaches is invalid, it just bothers me a lot that it has made it harder for women to sell their own feminist noir novels by crowding them out of the shelves and forcing them to compare themselves to his novels in order to get sales, like they have to ride his coattails. Not an attack on Larrson here, so much as the problems in the industry that put so much more emphasis on his book and getting it into the hands of readers while other, equally valid novels are subtly rebranded as “nordic noir… but for girls” because of the focus on relationships that takes up a greater part of the plot than it does in his series. Admittedly I’m not the most masculine bro on the planet, but I’ve never considered stories about relationships or romance to be something just for women to enjoy nor something lesser than a mystery that places more emphasis on the violence and sexuality than it does the romance and interpersonal drama.
Similar problem and similar solution: voting with the dollar and making it profitable for publishing behemoths to buy more manuscripts from an author demographic that has been pushed a bit to the wayside to make room for something they consider more palatable to a wider audience. That article contains several excellent examples of Nordic noir novels you might consider purchasing, so I won’t bog this section down with suggestions like I did for the black speculative fiction (which, frankly, I am more familiar with and more comfortable making recommendations in for now).
I can, however, make a recommendation with today’s book review!
The Curse of Chalion is one of those books I wish I had discovered way younger than I did, because I can tell it would have left even more of an impact mark on me at 16-17 than it did in my mid 20s. Bujold is a bit better known for her long-running Vorkosigan Saga, a great space opera series with roots in the Hornblower series and something like a kissing cousin to Star Trek: TOS with a greater emphasis on disabilities and subterfuge than space broadsides. Curse was one of her attempts to break into the fantasy market, one which worked pretty damn well and led to her creating other novels in the same setting, including the utterly stunning Paladin of Souls, one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. It all starts in Curse, though. Caz, an ex-knight who lost badly and found himself sold into slavery makes his way back to his home country to find that things have really gone to shit and that his body is so broken he’ll never hold his own as a professional soldier again, instead serving as a tutor for the granddaughter of his old patroness. He finds himself trying to discover the source of, and cure for a bizarre curse that has afflicted the royal house of Chalion. It features one of the most fascinating religions and magic systems I have seen in any fantasy setting ever, and gets massive props for drawing so much of its worldbuilding from the Iberian dynasties of old rather than medieval England or Scotland like so many of its peers. It deals with a vague pantheon of nameless gods, colored auras, sacrifices and demons with a heavy emphasis on the Bastard, a god with no associated season who can be prayed to for death magic. If you offer your own life up he make take his peculiar form of pity on you and “bless” you with instant death, along with the destruction of the target you have nominated to him. The crime for a failed attempt is execution for plotting murder if you are caught, but if it works it’s considered a holy miracle. This is to say nothing of sorcerers and curses and other very… interesting occurrences in the world. Oh, and as of August 3rd it’s on sale for 2 bucks via Kindle, down from 15. Sooo, no excuses, right?