Thursday, August 18, 2011

Many Things for Thursday

First up, I'd like to point you to this post by Juliet McKenna on the Representation of Women in Fantasy. McKenna is an outstanding fantasy author who has no problem doing unspeakable things to her characters. She clearly operates under the Bujold theory of writing, which is "think of the worst thing you could possibly do to your character, then do that, and watch them wriggle out of it. Then think of the next worst thing, and do that..." McKenna is out promoting a new book, doing the blog tour thing. I've found her books somewhat hard to find in local libraries - not sure why, although perhaps the fact that she's British and thus doesn't do much promotion here in the States has something to do with it. I own her first series - The Tales of Einarinn - and it's lovely.

Why, you may ask, am I so interested in the issue of women in speculative fiction? Three reasons, basically. One, a better representation of women in the genre that I like makes for better stories for me to read. Two, I have two daughters, one of whom reads speculative fiction (the other of which is only 7 months old, and so doesn't read anything yet), and I want them both to be exposed to strong and realistic female characters in the fiction they read, to make up for  the lack (or, ideally, to support the existence) of strong female figures in the non-fiction they may encounter. Three, my dissertation topic focuses on the political actions of women at the end of WWII - I am basically interested in stories of strong women where ever I find them.

Second thing. The Help - I reviewed it a while back, it's currently on Amazon's best seller list (because of the movie which has just come out), I enjoyed it a lot, and I know several of you enjoyed it too. The Association of Black Women Historians would like to remind us all that The Help is a work of fiction:

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), thisstatement provides historical context to address widespread stereotypingpresented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book hassold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie willensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the bookand the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, TheHelp distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domesticworkers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of blacklife and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rightsactivism.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation andeconomic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Upto 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domesticservants in white homes. The Help's representation of these women is adisappointing resurrection of Mammy-a mythical stereotype of black womenwho were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve whitefamilies. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites,the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemicracism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs whereemployers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recentiteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for thedays when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House ratherthan reside in it.
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech andculture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to achild-like, over-exaggerated "black" dialect. In the film, for example,the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, "Youis smat, you is kind, you is important." In the book, black women refer tothe Lord as the "Law," an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. Forcenturies, black women and men have drawn strength from their communityinstitutions. The black family, in particular provided support and thevalidation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do notrecognize the black community described in The Help where most of theblack male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Suchdistorted images are misleading and do not represent the historicalrealities of black masculinity and manhood.
Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexualharassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of whiteemployers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by CivilRights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domesticworkers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault.The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women's fears andvulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.
Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history ofblack Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination ofMedgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP,gets some attention. However, Evers' assassination sends Jackson's blackcommunity frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos anddisorganized confusion-a far cry from the courage demonstrated by theblack men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerousracists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed,society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the KuKlux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice toindividual acts of meanness.
We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses inthis film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of theirtalent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popularrendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is nota story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women wholabored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather,it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths aboutthe lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association ofBlack Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or thisfilm to strip black women's lives of historical accuracy for the sake ofentertainment.
Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at HowardUniversity. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross areLifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University ofTexas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and isa Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.
Suggested Reading:Fiction:Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic's Life, Alice ChildressThe Book of the Night Women by Marlon JamesBlanche on the Lam by Barbara NeeleyThe Street by Ann PetryA Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Non-Fiction:Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the PlantationHousehold by Thavolia GlymphTo Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors by Tera HunterLabor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, fromSlavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones Living In, Living Out: AfricanAmerican Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-LewisComing of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent>
It is, of course, possible to respond to this statement with indignation - "I really liked the book, how can you say such mean things about it" - but that is unproductive, I think. Ideally, if you enjoyed the book, it should make you interested in looking at other representations of the period in question. To that end, I am glad that the ABWH has provided some additional reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

Final thing:

From my facebook friends list over the weekend:

Oh, wait, one more thing! Here's this thing about independent book stores, thriving in this painfully thin economy. Couple of thoughts - the article is spot on about starting book groups in big box stores. My wife and I organized a small group in our local big box, back in VA. Despite enthusiastic buy in from one of the PR folks, and the fact that my wife worked in the store, we never got signs, we couldn't guarantee access to a space to meet, there was no official recognition, or support (no 20% off the book the group is reading, or anything like that). Bah. Second - my parents just did a book promotion thing. (Did I mention that my parents have written a book? They totally did - Chinese Characters, a collection of informative e-mails from their year teaching in China. It's pretty cool!) They couldn't get access to big box stores, but our little local bookstore gave them space, put books on the shelves, advertised the event - it was a good time! Independent bookstores for the win!