This weekend I read Wild Seed by Octavia Butler for a blog tour, which Sparky and I are participating in for Fangs for the Fantasy. When I was done, I went on twitter to announce that I have absolutely no intention of reading another book by Butler. This is when the shock ensued. How could I have a problem with Butler?
Wild Seed marks my third book by Octavia Butler and having not enjoyed any of them, I decided I was done with her. I kept trying to read Butler because so many told me how good her work was and out of a desire to support Black art. Marginalized authors quite simply don’t get the support they deserve, and this is particularly true, if their book has a historically marginalized protagonist. Because I am so well aware of the gakekeeping that goes on in media, I know how important it is to support the efforts of marginalized people to tell their story.
The problem of course comes with the pressure to then praise and support the work, even in cases when the work itself is not good. I think it’s one thing to investigate the work of marginalized people first, before moving onto the privileged, but it is another thing to be pressured to like the work. Butler is an important figure in science fiction, because historically there have not been a lot WOC working successfully in the genre; however, the fact that she is Black and female, is not enough for me to publicly claim to like books that did not interest me and at times offended me – particularly Fledgling and its pedophilia.
The three books that I have read by Butler are Fledgling, Kindred and Wild Seed. In each book, it felt as though she lost track of her own plot and didn’t know how to end her story. I find her writing style to be meandering and she doesn’t so much tell a story, but relate events from her protagonists life. This means that we are introduced to characters unnecessarily, because they have no role in plot advancement and this helps to weigh the story down. These criticisms are not race related and in fact are all about writing style. Having Black characters and a Black protagonist, doesn’t mean that the work itself is good, or that the writing style is conducive to the creation of a forward moving plot. Still yet the pressure exists for me to declare her work excellent, or at the very least shut up about my complaints.
Butler isn’t the only author of colour which I have problems with. For the life of me, I don’t understand the near universal love of L.A. Banks. I understand that she was one of the first, if not the first to write solely characters of colour in the urban fantasy genre. This representation is important and it of course encouraged more people to include marginalized characters in their work, but is that reason enough to declare her books great? Minion begins with a fight scene before readers know anything about the characters, which means the reader has no reason to invest in the battle. All I ever learned about Big Mike, is that his name is Mike and he’s big. There’s also the little issue of the psychic chastity belt (umm yeah, no thanks). Sure, it’s great to see a novel in which a Black woman is the chosen one for a change, but does that somehow invalidate the many instances of bad characterization, plot development and rambling that occurs in Minion?
At some point, we have to decide that it is okay to be critical of art created in our communities. Giving them a blind pass means that it will become stagnant and how does this benefit marginalized art? I not only want to consume art created by people of colour, I want it to be good and enjoyable. I don’t want to be pressured, if I don’t like a book, movie, song etc,. I specifically reject the idea that I am supposed to enjoy and promote this work if I find it problematic, or quite simply don’t like it. At some point, we have to decide that though racism, gatekeeping and exclusion are negative factors in the media, that this is no way means we have to support something we don’t like, or fear that criticism means that other marginalized artists won’t get the break they need, if we decide not to embrace it. The fact that we are pressured to like art we don’t like or find problematic is because of the oppression marginalized people face everyday, but it is not a good justification for the pressure to embrace that which makes us uncomfortable or that we dislike.
Another issue but related to the idea of supporting marginalized authors, is the pressure to support the work of privileged allies, when they include historically marginalized people in their work. Last night I watched the first episode of Partners. I chose to watch it because it is about the interaction between 2 straight people and 2 gay men. Holy Will and Grace batman. It was obvious to me that the two gay male gay characters were a straight up stereotype. Both were highly effeminate with a sassy personality. Are there gay men out there like this? Absolutely. The problem is that this is the only representation of gay men that we see in the media. It made think of conversations that I have had with friends, where they talk about how it has been deemed unacceptable to criticise the work of any ally, because their intentions are good. There is also the pressure to squee every time they see themselves represented in media, even in cases where they find the representation to be problematic or stereotypical. Sometimes, they say that the pressure is worse, because they get it from both the community itself and from the people who support the community. This is silencing behaviour and without doubt, is a form of oppression.
As marginalized people, we need to band together against that which oppresses us, but somewhere within all of this, there has to be room for diversity of ideas, because though we may have one or two characteristics in common, we are individuals. We don’t operate as a hive mind and such thinking fails to recognise that even within a community, dissent will occur because many people operate with more than one marginalization and this effects the way they see the world. For example, I am Black woman who is also disabled and this creates a unique point of view which others in my various communities may not see or understand, because their identity is not as diversified as mine. Does this somehow make my opinion on racial issues, gender issues, or disability issues irrelevant? When we silence dissent and command conformity within our communities, not only are we limiting conversation and stalling growth, we are actively policing. I think we all deserve better than that. Within our communities, which are supposedly safe spaces, we need to leave room for a diverse set of opinions. No one person alone can eliminate discrimination, but one person can introduce ideas which could be the genesis for change, if they are allowed to speak. Silencing and policing only works to stall the project of emancipation from oppression.