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"Household Spirits": Critique and Reflection

A friend of mine sent me these critiques of Household Spirits, which was published at Strange Horizons.

They are very moving, and I hope I may learn from them.

http://tablesaw.dreamwidth.org/480301.html
http://moniquill.dreamwidth.org/350055.html

It was such an interesting experience writing that story, because when I started out, I meant to write about three things:

1.) A divorce story that wasn't rancorous or bitter.
2.) A "good father" story.
3.) A fantasy that was not set in an alternate Europe.

And what came out, of course, with that writing, was every used, tired Amerindian trope in the book.

It went through several drafts and months of inner debate and right up to the day it was published, I was nervous and doubtful about it. And so I should have been.

tithenai and I had many hard discussions about it, after publication, and I was very glad to have a friend hold up such a mirror for me.

The point is, it's done. It's out there. I wrote it. Which means that blindness and ignorance was in me. Which means I have to examine it, and all the stories like it. After that, never do it again.

***

This is a stupidly self-absorbed post.

My story hurt people. moniquill and tablesaw among them. I am sorry to have hurt them and added to an already ubiquitous problem. Thank you for lifting up your voices.

***

LATER EDIT:

I understand that some of you, as my friends, want to defend me and/or my story, but please recognize that I don't need this criticism deflected or undermined. I'm just bumbling along and trying to learn as I go. Thank you. - Claire

***

Here is the official Strange Horizons response:

http://www.strangehorizons.com/blog/2011/07/on_working_toward_our_mission.shtml


***
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Comments

Hmm. The internet polarizes things, so do keep that in mind, but I'm glad you're taking this as a learning experience.

I wish I had anything helpful to say, but aside from taking the helpful parts of those critiques to heart, I don't know that there's much of use TO say.
I've just tried to type about three different things, but they all came out as trite! So I'm just gonna say thanks for writing. I know you're there.
Ouch. Caught between thrown rocks and hard truths.

I am proud of you for, instead of choosing a "defensive" strategy, choosing instead a graceful, honest, trite, and ashamed apology, and especially for taking steps to figure things out and fix them.
Yes, this. You were astonishingly graceful about the feedback. In a way I don't think I've ever seen, especially on the internetz.
It would be folly to try and defend myself when I'm in the wrong here.

<3 I think it's awesome that you're posting about this with grace and, like an above commenter said, using it as a learning experience. And no, it's not a stupidly self-absorbed post. :)
I think there are some wisdoms in all of that--just be careful when plucking them out of all that bubbling acid.
Thank you for posting this, Claire. I've learned from it, too.
I haven't read the above reviews yet, but for the record (even though you already know this), I love that story. I think the tropes are given enough of a unique flavor that they do not come across as cliches. And even the cliches that are there are told well enough that they work- all stories are built from cliches, the difference is that a talented author wields them well and touches you despite them.
It wasn't about the cliches, though. It had to do with race issues.
And now I have read the above reviews.

I totally get where they are coming from. I have been ranted about the "magical white boy" story myself for many years.

I guess my question is, how different does an author have to make something before it doesn't apply to anyone?

You list the themes you wanted to weave into this story, and you hit them, and hit them powerfully. Could they have been better framed? Perhaps.

I would point out that the stories that so cut Native people are part of the heritage of us white folks, whether we asked for them or not. The tropes are lies when applied to real persons of Native descent, yes, but ALL tropes are lies at the heart of them. All tropes are cliches based on false assumptions and misunderstandings and nonsense.

That doesn't stop them from being powerful storytelling tools, for good or ill. Sometimes both at the same time.

I'm not dismissing the complaints of these reviewers, they are valid. But just as valid is the fact that to me, a privileged white guy who grew up with these tropes WITHOUT KNOWING THEY WERE HURTFUL TO ANYONE, they move me in different ways than they do you.

The "magical white boy has to save the natives from his own people" story IS bullshit, and I call it when I see it. And yes, there is some of that going on in Household Spirits, there's no denying it. But the story of a father and son that uses this larger trope as a framework is no less excellent for all that, in my opinion.
Thank you all for your feedback.
Let me lead by saying that I love Claire dearly, and understand perfectly the impulse to rise to her defense when she or her writing come under severe criticism, even -- and perhaps especially -- when she is doing the very hard work of accepting that criticism and trying to learn from it.

However, there are things in this comment which are nothing short of abhorrent, and which I think need to be dragged out into the light.

I would point out that the stories that so cut Native people are part of the heritage of us white folks, whether we asked for them or not.

What you are saying here is that the feelings and hurt and marginalization of real actual First Nations people like moniquill are subordinate to the need of white people to parse and romanticise their "heritage" in story. I hope this is not what you meant to say. But it's what's written there. Not having asked for murderous ancestors is no excuse for continuing to thoughtlessly harm the VERY PEOPLE THEY HARMED while working through one's own issues on the matter of murderous ancestors.

The tropes are lies when applied to real persons of Native descent, yes, but ALL tropes are lies at the heart of them. All tropes are cliches based on false assumptions and misunderstandings and nonsense.

This is actually untrue. Tropes are not clichés. Tropes are patterns, recognisable narrative constructions and conventions, which occur within social contexts and are likewise examined and deconstructed within them. Tropes are not lies, either, inasmuch as they are not things deliberately told to mislead or obscure the truth: on the contrary, they are incredibly telling things, the way that you can tell a great deal about the climate of a given place by what kind of houses you find there.

So let me extend that metaphor a little. You see a house with a pointed, sloping roof, built out of wood. You can infer from that, perhaps, that this is a climate that received a lot of rain and snow, and the pointed, sloping roof has been developed to keep that off. But you can further look at the house and ask, where did the wood for it come from? This house is providing shelter to some people, yes, but at what cost is it doing so? Was the timber clear-cut? Were the hands that built it enslaved? Is it built on stolen ground?

What is taking place here is that Claire has learned disturbing things about this house she has built, while you are saying "look, it's a good house, its form follows its function, it keeps off the weather, and that matters too." I know you're SAYING that you're not dismissing those "valid concerns," but the simple truth of it is that you are. To ignore what you know about the house, or to justify it by drawing attention to how well it works as a house, is irresponsible at best, and actively harmful at worst.

That doesn't stop them from being powerful storytelling tools, for good or ill. Sometimes both at the same time.

The more powerful the tool, the more closely one ought to read the manual before wielding it, no?

But just as valid is the fact that to me, a privileged white guy who grew up with these tropes WITHOUT KNOWING THEY WERE HURTFUL TO ANYONE, they move me in different ways than they do you.

That's a perfectly fair observation. But I think you're looking at it backwards: where you seem to be claiming the right to continue to be moved by tropes which resonate with you at the detriment of other people, I would say that one has a responsibility to examine the privileges that allow you to enjoy them and be aware of why that is possible for you and not for others, and then work towards changing the world to make that less the case. And I think that's what Claire's doing, and I am really fucking proud of her for doing so instead of shrugging it off with some token words about Art.
The house metaphor really is very useful. I will copy and paste it somewhere I can find it again.
"That doesn't stop them from being powerful storytelling tools, for good or ill. Sometimes both at the same time."

The more powerful the tool, the more closely one ought to read the manual before wielding it, no?


Thank you. I have been following this conversation, and I appreciate what you have said, and that phrase, in particular, really resonated with me.
I think you're approaching this, and thinking about it, exactly right. Thank you for that; I know it's hard to do <3

Some of the responses to your post, though, are textbook what not to do; I'm appalled at the entitlement oozing from them. Folks, you should learn from csecoonsey and consider checking your privilege some.
Argh typoed csecooney there *facepalm*
Thanks, Shweta. For all your help and insight in this.
I only wish I had the spoons to be more help/more *there* all round :/
Hey, lady, don't exhaust yourself this round. You do your work and you do it well, here as elsewhere. You can't do and be everything to all people. You do and are enough.
And I... still... have a Jahanara pic to finish :D

*facepalm* I owe sairaali cookies with it or something, after all this time.
I am hoping I am not one of these...
Nono, not you; I'm referring to those that are going (paraphrased because reading them the first time was triggery enough):
- "You shouldn't have to apologize, those mean nasty POC are just being mean"
- I love the story so I'm upset that you recognize problems!
- But! These are White folks' narratives! They're silencing the White folks' narratives!!!

And a couple other things I think.
Ahhh.

I admit, I am not sure what to do with stories that explore the themes of oppression that are interwoven into the ancestry of many "white" folks. Is there a good way to write that, from the point of view of the white people in the story, without falling into these traps and hurting people in the process? *grimace*
I think there are ways! Though, yeah, writing respectfully about oppression is hard, and when it's about intersecting oppressions it's that much harder. And of course who counts as "white" changes over time and the relevant privilege dynamics change, and...

I think it's worth it, but I can very much sympathize with flailing and panicking on the way. In fact I suspect if there's not a certain amount of flailing in the process, we're probably doing it wrong. (I'm currently trying to poke at race-religion-class intersections in pre-colonial India, without failing wrt characters' queernesses, and oooog.)

Flailing aside, IMO moniquill is a great person to follow & whose posts I end up thinking about a lot; Jaded on tumblr is too, as is fantasyecho, and they both address intersectional issues that are generally relevant. None of them are anyone's encyclopaedia, of course! But they are clueful people who write thought-provoking things.
I shall have to check them out. Thank you.
You're most welcome.

I realized last night, while not falling asleep, that I was totally assuming everyone already knows ktempest and nojojojo and nisi_la and the Carl Brandon Society and The Angry Black Woman blog, so didn't even think to mention them -- and also that that assumption might not be true :) So have some more links!
I have heard of some of those, but not all. Thank you!

Thank you.

I would like to sincerely thank you, so much, for having such a thoughtful and measured response to my critique. It is wonderful, and too rare, for an author to react with such grace and willingness to admit wrongdoing - to be willing to research and to learn and pledge to do better. So often folks become defensive and angry (which is understandable in the face of anger- my post was very angry in places) that I was honestly shocked and touched by this response.

Thank you.

It is by listening, and by the kind of willingness to change that you have displayed here, that progress is made.

Re: Thank you.

I am glad to have been pointed out to your blog.
Take care,
Claire

Re: Thank you.

cosigned.
Thank you. Over the course of yesterday and today, I keep almost typing a comment, then thinking some more, then almost typing a comment. This has given me a lot to think about.

Your story was chilling and haunting and beautiful and I loved it, but I can see how it is also hurtful to Native people. As I wasn't one of the ones hurt by the story, my thanks isn't exactly for your apology -- my thanks is more for giving an example of how to respond gracefully to this kind of feedback. As others have pointed out, it isn't often that we see people admit to their shortcomings and commit to learning and improving next time.

I, too, have said or done things that have exposed my priviledge and my ignorance about said privilege. That ignorance is one of the hallmarks of privilege: white people don't have to think about race very often, so we do often end up putting our foot in our mouth, or being insensitive, or worse. Thank you for giving the rest of us privileged folks a good example of how to say, "I hear you. I didn't intend to hurt you, but I recognize that that doesn't excuse the hurt. I'm sorry and I will listen to you and learn from what I have done." Those are powerful words. Thank you.
I am glad you're listening.

I'm glad I'm listening too. It's so easy to get defensive (and I admit that I had a knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend you and your story -- I am glad that I stifled that reaction until I had read more and thought on it more), but defensiveness usually escalates the anger and nobody learns anything. I have found that when I am the person or a member of the group which is responsible for some kind of hurt or wrongdoing, listening is often the most important thing to do.
I'm going to say something slightly left-field from the rest of this conversation, but I think it is good that you tried something out of your comfort zone even if you fell splat on your face. You were actually doing something that FoC always want writers to do ... take fantasy out of the Eurocentric world. It didn't work this time, but I'd encourage you to try again.

A lot of people are so afraid of offending anyone or looking like a fool that they stay in comfortable narrative spaces. To my mind it is better to try and fail than it is to stay safe.

Fail better next time. Fall from a higher cliff.
This is what I intend. With all my might.

Thank you.
Hey, I found my way here through discussions of the issue on Tumblr, and I just want to say that, as a struggling non-PoC writer myself, I can imagine exactly how horrified you must have been to read those critiques, how much it must have shaken you, and still you handled it more calmly and gracefully than I can picture myself doing. So thank you, for showing me how, and making me feel a bit braver about taking my own risks.
Hey, welcome aboard!

I noticed just now that Shweta Narayan has provided some excellent links a few comments up, and had linked to a few more yesterday.

So long as we're all doing extra reading... :)
I've spent the whole day thinking about all of this, and came home all set to write about it some more, but having read more comments, I see that I need to choose my words more carefully before setting them down. Clearly my hastily typed comments have contributed more to murk than clarity, and that is not helpful.

Also, the new comments, both here and on both of the cited blogs, have given me more to think about.

So I'm printing the whole mess out (looks like upward of 50 pages already between them all) to read at work and probably jot notes on before having anything useful to say (if it turns out I have anything to add at all).

Bottom line, though, is that nobody can repair harm done in the past- we can only hope to learn from one another and move forward hand in hand.
We sure do have a LOT of reading to do.
Thing is, nobody's suggesting anyone try to undo the past; the idea is not to re-create/perpetuate/justify/glorify the harm.

It's also not okay to tell the people who have been just-hurt-again that they have to hold anyone's hand to move forward. If they're willing to do so, that's awesome, but it cannot be a demand, and it cannot come from people who are still doing harm, unintentionally or not.
*sigh*

Case in point.

I really would like to have a positive and mutually beneficial discussion about this. I am interested in learning and understanding the many sides of this issue.

That said, I'm honestly not sure I have the emotional fortitude to participate in earnest if my every turn of phrase is going to be thrown back at me.

I can't cross the river if every time I try to stand up, a wave of rancor knocks me down again. The footing here is slippery enough.

All I'm asking for is a little patience. I am not the enemy.

Elsewise, I will just keep my own counsel, but we've already established that as a poor option.
Sure. If you were the enemy, I wouldn't be talking to you; that'd be a waste of time and energy. And if I had no patience to extend, I wouldn't be working to put the words together in a way that might maybe bridge a communication gap this time.

I realize that's not clear to you at present. But it's really the first huge thing to understand: for people in marginalized groups, having these conversations is a drain, and has a very high cost. We mostly don't bother unless good may come of it; unless we have reason to believe that the person we're talking to wants to not do harm.

Unfortunately, it is often very hard for that person to come to terms with the fact that they are currently doing harm.

And I can't make that easier for you. It's a really sucky thing to be made aware of. But it's the only way you can have a fair chance of stopping.

I'm not saying any of this with rancor. I'm saying it because you've indicated that you want to understand better. And what you need to understand, first, is that you *have* done harm so far with your first comment, which is context that makes it extra-problematic for you to then try to tell the victims of that harm what to do next.

I understand that it really sucks to hear that; but telling you is not an attempt to throw anything in your face. It's an attempt to give you information that will help you stop from doing further harm.



well said. i no longer bother trying to have these conversations but I am very glad that you still have the strength for it.
Shweta is pretty damned amazing.
Late to this all, but found you via Shweta, and wanted to add to the chorus of thanks. Taking criticism gracefully is NOT something at which I excel, and so I applaud and celebrate it in others, especially when it occurs around a topic that often evokes so much defensiveness. Thank you for making this world better than it was a few days ago.
You are kind to add your voice here. Thank you for dropping by.