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Thread: When your friends write troubling stuff

  1. #1
    Book lover/Spy Sai's Avatar
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    When your friends write troubling stuff

    So I recently beta read a friend's contemporary fantasy novel. The novel is set in the UK, and the main character is an immortal being who's current form is a young white British woman. However, her true identity is a major figure from (let's say for the sake of anonymity) Indian mythology. After I finished reading the book, I mentioned to my friend that it troubled me that she had taken a mythological figure from another culture and white-washed her. I pointed out that in her novel she used figures from Japanese mythology and kept their human forms Japanese- didn't it feel weird to make the main character's avatar white when her roots were from another part of the world? I stayed away from words like appropriation, but that's how it felt to me. She said that she hadn't thought about it that way before but she could see where I was coming from. She had some reasons for making the character white, but they didn't make me any more comfortable with her choice.

    Part of me wishes I had pushed her harder on this, but I didn't because 1. She's my friend and 2. I'm whiter than a Fleetwood Mac concert and I wasn't sure if it was really my place to be offended when it's not my culture getting painted over.

    So I guess this post has two questions to it: How do you bring it up with friends when you feel they've written something problematic? Can you call someone out on racist depictions without acting like you're speaking on behalf of a culture not your own? Overall my friend took my comments very well, but like I said before I worry that I should have pushed harder.
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  2. #2
    ageing savage dolores haze's Avatar
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    Possibly link her to an online discussion about it? Information for her, but not coming from your own mouth.

  3. #3
    Mushroom Polenth's Avatar
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    Usually, I try to make my position clear in brief, and pass on some links from someone who is in the culture or group. It's about repeating what they've said, rather than coming up with something all-new that they may or may not think. But after that, there's nothing more you can do. Using harsher language won't make a difference.

    It is important to speak up. This isn't a case where someone Indian was in the room and you shouted over them. You were the one there, and if you don't say anything, it could be no one will. There are a number of times where an author has got to publication, and I'm boggled that no one pointed out there might be issues. Everyone waited for someone else to say it.
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  4. #4
    Walking Anachronism davidh219's Avatar
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    Well, it depends. I'm the type of person who doesn't offend easily, and I tend to look down on others who are offended easily. Not saying it's right that I do that, but it's just who I am, so take anything I'm about to say with that in mind.

    But yeah, it depends. It depends on what those aforementioned reasons for the character being white are, if the mythological figure is from a religion that people still practice today, etc.

    I would say if there are good reasons for this character to be white, then it's fine. Like say she's a mythical being who can take any form she wants and is only white because either that's what most people there are, or because white people are more privileged there, or both. That would be a good reason. Why should a mythical being choose a body that's going to face discrimination? They're not human anyway, so it probably doesn't matter to them. I'm not from the UK so I don't know firsthand, but isn't there an awful lot of hatred towards people from the middle east there? Just a thought.

    If there is no good reason like that then yeah, I think she should change the character's ethnicity, not necessarily because it's offensive, though some may take it that way, but because it would just be silly not to, and it would make your friend seem like somebody who just wrote a white character because she's white and that's what she's familiar with.
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  5. #5
    The colors! THE COLORS! leahzero's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sai View Post
    Part of me wishes I had pushed her harder on this
    I'm wondering why? You informed her of the elements you found problematic, and she seems to have been receptive to your feedback--at least, the way you described her reaction doesn't come across as self-righteous or defensive.

    You can't force her to understand, or to change the story. It is, after all, her story, and she can tell it in the way that she wants to.

    I don't know your relationship with this person, but it seems you've done enough, IMO. Your friend will probably think about it more on her own. Maybe she'll begin to see the same problem in her other work, or in the work of others, and gradually become more aware of cultural appropriation and whitewashing.

    You could give her a gentle reminder by linking her to an article about whitewashing in fiction. Since you feel uncomfortable about pressing the issue personally, it may be better to let a third party educate her. It could also preserve your friendship with her, since she'll be less likely to see it as you criticizing her, but rather leading her to a deeper understanding that she'll achieve on her own.
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    Book lover/Spy Sai's Avatar
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    Thanks everyone. Over the course of today I've found new things to stress about (hahaha, a river of water under my floorboards! Great!) but I really appreciate everyone weighing and making me think about things from different angles. Thanks again.
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  7. #7
    the Juggernaut of Imperfection crunchyblanket's Avatar
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    Personally, if parts of my novel were racially problematic - or problematic in any other way - I'd want someone to point it out to me.

  8. #8
    So Goth That I Was Born Black AW Moderator Kitty27's Avatar
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    I'd LOVE a friend who pointed out that I was veering into WTF territory. This is a valued service.

    I have seen some jaw droppers in my time. Everything from a friend of mine who decided to write about Asian culture and had geisha's serving Chinese nobles in ancient China.

    Uh,no. Just,NO. Writers of color have to always remember to also respect other people of color when choosing to write about them.

    I have had well meaning friends want to write Black characters yet have them all having a "natural" rhythm.

    It's good tat you spoke up. I hope she takes your advice.
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  9. #9
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Good grief - YES - please speak up if something's not reading right. No one wants to get to the point readers are going through a story only to be caught up short by something that's either a mistake, a flat out impossibility, or a phrase/line that read one way to the author and a totally different way to the reader.

    If it hadn't been for my copyeditor, one paragraph of one of my novels would have gone to print with an unintended double meaning. I'm - extremely - literal in most cases, so when I say something is black, I mean onyx-colored. My editor knows this, and tends to read things as I intend them. However, the CE is more neutral and read the lines completely different. Once she pointed it out, I knew exactly what she meant and changed it. I would have been mortified if a reader had interpreted that section the same way my CE did. It was never intended to be a racially-charged scene, but rather a description of a medial condition that darkened a person's blood until it appeared (onyx) black. Because of the way it was phrased, the MC's comments about the person's "black blood" could have come off as highly offensive.
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    Personally, I keep around the people who will smack me upside the head if I get to WTF territory. (figuratively). When people beta a story about another country I wrote, I beg them to do that and not back off. People do make mistakes and sometimes without realizing it, so it's better to say anything than tip toe. I've been talked down a few times. ^^;; (Also had to talk myself down a few times)

    But yeah, telling them and showing links from people with that experience is better. If she doesn't understand why, you can find more articles to that effect. Ultimately the best you can do is inform her decision, but you can't really change it for her.

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  11. #11
    Attack me with everything you have. Kim Fierce's Avatar
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    I think it's good to point out problems like this. I wrote a short story which I offered as a free download on my publisher's web site. It is told from the POV of a bigot, and is to make fun of the racist points of view he has. My publisher liked it and put it up. However, after a couple months, I submitted a sequel and she told me that some readers were confused and thought I was racist!!!! I grew hysterical and wished she would have told me before. She said if I put both versions of the story together perhaps things would be more clear. But because I'm working on so many other projects right now, I decided to just pull the free short story off the site, and maybe I'll put both stories together in the future, but right now I have novels I'm working on!
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  12. #12
    On a wing and a prayer aruna's Avatar
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    She's not a friend, she's a member of another writing board where I mostly lurk but sometimes post. She is white, and she self-published this book.

    On that forum, she described the book in more detail. The MC is a white man who is sold into slavery in the American South by a love-rival. He is stained dark at first, but then the sun takes over and he really looks dark; he is also passed off as an octoroon. The book seems to focus on his rage at the "injustice" of his enslavement, and of course in the end everything turns out well and "justice" is done, ie he is set free and gets the girl.

    I am not terribly thin-skinned but I find this premise problematic.
    It seems that most other writers on that forum are white and only one of them raised an objection; she actually posted a link to Victoria Foyt's novel and recommended that the author read it. I posted a brief comment saying that I too find it problematic. The author very breezily brushed away these objections.
    However, she has intimidated that she is quite happy to make adjustments and improvements and maybe even change the title.

    I think she is in for a lot of flak if she goes ahead with this story and word gets out. I haven't read any of it so I don't know what the writing is like, but the premise of a white man unjustly enslaved -- as if black men are justly enslaved -- seems very touchy to me. As I said, I'm not an active member of that forum so I don't think my opinion would count for very much, and I have had my say already.

    I just wanted to your feedback .. how do you feel about this premise?
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW Dandroid's Avatar
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    Does the "white-washing" go beyond the avatar being white? If I were a mythical being able to take any human form, i'm sure I'd try everything...
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    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by aruna View Post

    I just wanted to your feedback .. how do you feel about this premise?
    I think she's playing with fire.

    Maybe she thinks she's writing a story that decries racism/slavery or some such, but given her set-up, I wouldn't touch it. The broad scope of this seems poorly thought out; I can't imagine the mine field that must be the nuances.

    Walk away, writer. Walk away.

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  15. #15
    On a wing and a prayer aruna's Avatar
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    That's what I thought. I feel sorry for her, but she didn't take the initial warning nor the link to V.F. --- I don't think anything I'd say now could change that. And the forum being mostly white (AFAIK) they would support her. aaargh...
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    Not black, but NO. That's a definite no. (Though the cover has issues too)

    - I'd talk her down by linking Victoria Foyt's long list of hate-filled mail.
    - Then link her to the history of black face (which even made my white classmates feel sick.) Warning: The videos I've found get pretty offensive.
    - Link her to the demise of a magazine over Victoria Foyt (well near extinction)
    - And clue her in that putting Abraham Lincoln on the cover doesn't make the book's contents less racist... (He was not technically the person that freed the black slaves... blacks also had a hand in it.)

    - Also, I think she's missing the whole history of racism. A person isn't going to understand what it's like to be shipped across the sea, see their family and people die, get lashed, treated like an animal, be forced to have children by a person they don't love and know what it's like to be raised, often branded, that they will never really get to escape. Selling a love rival and black facing them, makes light of that fact.

    It's not the same. I believe there is a documentary about the genetics of African Americans that kind of shows what the implications of slavery were. Can't remember the title, though.

  17. #17
    On a wing and a prayer aruna's Avatar
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    It's not my way to give unasked for advice, Rachel, just as I don't like to receive it. It just feels pushy to me.
    She was given a warning, by two people; given a link to the Victoria Foyt disaster; if she had been concerned, asked why it is troublesome, I would have been happy to discuss it with her. But she just brushed it off. I almost hope the book will sink without a trace; she doesn't seem to be promoting it aggressively the way VF did. If it does ever attract attention I think she'll just have to learn the hard way.
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  18. #18
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Sadly, that's all you can do, in some cases. Too many people expect their intent to override their content. They don't consider the final destnation of Good Intention Road.
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  20. #20
    Bearded and serious clee984's Avatar
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    From your description, it doesn't sound too bad, I mean, why not have a character from Indian mythology inhabit a caucasian body? I'm a heterosexual white guy, and someone asked me recently who I'd like to play me if a movie were made of my life, and I said Rachel Weisz, because I've always wondered what my life would be like if I was a beautiful jewish woman. (I hope that) I was not being misogynistic or anti-semitic by saying that.

    However, if you do think her work is a little troubling, I see no problem in telling her. It it were me, I'd be very grateful for that kind of feedback. My lead characters are invariably female (not that I have unresolved issues you understand, I wear the underwear purely for comfort reasons), and if a woman read my stuff and told me she thought something I had written was incorrect or even mildy offensive, I'd thank her, and change it.

  21. #21
    practical experience, FTW SBibb's Avatar
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    Not sure what to say about the situation, but I would personally want to know if there was a problem with something I was writing. One of my readers pointed out an "Unfortunate Implication" before, and I'm glad they did. I went back to rewrite that scene so it had my intended vision, rather than how it came off at the time. So I would say to tell them your concerns, and why, so they can be aware of it.
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  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by aruna View Post
    That's what I thought. I feel sorry for her, but she didn't take the initial warning nor the link to V.F. --- I don't think anything I'd say now could change that. And the forum being mostly white (AFAIK) they would support her. aaargh...
    Looked at the cover on Smashwords. Quietly closed the tab.

    You've done your best. I honestly hope no one on GR comes across it. She should thank her stars it isn't a YA book. It would've been discovered and ripped yesterday.

  23. #23
    Crankypants Sochitelya's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by aruna View Post
    She's not a friend, she's a member of another writing board where I mostly lurk but sometimes post. She is white, and she self-published this book.

    On that forum, she described the book in more detail. The MC is a white man who is sold into slavery in the American South by a love-rival. He is stained dark at first, but then the sun takes over and he really looks dark; he is also passed off as an octoroon. The book seems to focus on his rage at the "injustice" of his enslavement, and of course in the end everything turns out well and "justice" is done, ie he is set free and gets the girl.

    I am not terribly thin-skinned but I find this premise problematic.
    It seems that most other writers on that forum are white and only one of them raised an objection; she actually posted a link to Victoria Foyt's novel and recommended that the author read it. I posted a brief comment saying that I too find it problematic. The author very breezily brushed away these objections.
    However, she has intimidated that she is quite happy to make adjustments and improvements and maybe even change the title.

    I think she is in for a lot of flak if she goes ahead with this story and word gets out. I haven't read any of it so I don't know what the writing is like, but the premise of a white man unjustly enslaved -- as if black men are justly enslaved -- seems very touchy to me. As I said, I'm not an active member of that forum so I don't think my opinion would count for very much, and I have had my say already.

    I just wanted to your feedback .. how do you feel about this premise?
    I saw that on Tumblr (a Tumblr dedicated to bad fantasy covers, but it also touches on racism/sexism). Hopefully it gets picked up by other blogs. Perhaps a public outcry will get through to her.
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  24. #24
    On a wing and a prayer aruna's Avatar
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    Link:

    On the comment thread is a post by the forum member I mentioned, who goes into more detail here. Or at least, I "think" it's her. She has a different name here, but it is in the ABNA forum. I just don't remember the back and forth going on that long.
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  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW akaria's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by clee984 View Post
    From your description, it doesn't sound too bad, I mean, why not have a character from Indian mythology inhabit a caucasian body?
    What I find problematic about it is that it continues the idea that white is right. An Indian goddess can't even inhabit the body of one of her own people? She's got to be a white woman because....why? It's like the author gets to use all the shiny bits of Indian mythology without the pesky part of writing a WOC. Just like people who write characters that are bi-racial (Always mixed with white. As if different kinds of POC don't bonk each other.) and ignore the non-white culture except when mystical woo-woo is needed.

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