the written world: of whiteness

news

two cool things are happening right now: the ten thousand doors of January is a kindle daily deal today! $3.99! also there’s a goodreads giveaway for 100 copies of the once and future witches (digital; us only). oh, and i was recently honored to lose the nebula award for best novel to sarah pinsker, who was unbelievably gracious and kind to me during the virtual nebulas. congratulations to all the other winners (and other losers) as well!

of whiteness

so: i’ve been getting this certain kind of email lately. they’re all pretty long. they all have a palpable anxiety to them, a sense of hands being wrung. they start something like this: “hi, i’m a white author, and i want to write/have written a book/story with a Black/Indigenous/Asian/Latinx character, but i don’t want to get in trouble/fuck it up. I was wondering if you had any—"(1)

it’s not a huge mystery why i get emails like this: i’m a white writer who has written characters of color. (the main character of The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a mixed race seventeen-year-old). a lot of my work deals, to varying degrees of success, with issues of power, race, and empire.

i answer most of these emails the same way. i refer them to jeannette ng’s “cultural appropriation for the worried writer” and alexander chee’s essay on writing the other. i encourage them to ask themselves some serious questions, wish them wisdom, and peace the hell out.

i know it’s not the response most of them are looking for. they’re looking for permission, absolution, information. they want a ten-step plan and a list of sensitivity readers. they asked “should i write this story about a Black WWII nurse/a Cherokee explorer/an immigrant witch?” (2) and they want a yes or no, and the truth is: i don’t know, dude. maybe! probably not.

but there’s often a second half to that question, which goes like this: “…or should i just make them white?”

putting aside some of the other implications of this question,(3) it’s the just that’s been bothering me lately. the implication that there’s an easy mode to novel-writing, a switch you flick that means you no longer have to worry about race or power or history. there’s nothing just about whiteness.

whiteness isn’t accidental or coincidental. it’s a (relatively recent!) cultural construction designed to justify domination and subjugation in the name of profit. it has a history, a set of norms and expectations, a shitload of baggage. even where it appears coincidental, it has been rigorously, violently maintained: the pacific northwest is white because they passed laws banning Black people; cities are segregated because of redlining; sundown towns were a national phenomenon. racism determined the height of overpasses (google robert moses) and the number of public swimming pools in your town.

in my next book, all three point-of-view characters are white american suffragists at end of the 19th century. one of the scenes is modeled very loosely on the 1913 women’s march on washington—a triumphal moment, full of radical women dressed in white waving banners high. it was also the moment when ida b. wells was asked to march at the back so as not to offend the white southern participants.(4)

so like: making my characters white did not magically erase issues of race, privilege, exclusion, and power; it still demanded research, investigation, interrogation, grappling with unpleasant realities and complex identities. i wrung my hands. i re-wrote. i still don’t know how successful i was.

and look: i’m not saying every novel in the world has to become some kind of expository anti-racist manifesto. i’m not saying i know what i’m doing. i’m just saying it’s not a choice between dealing with race, or just writing white characters. i’m just saying: there is no just.

notes
1: note that this newsletter is aimed pretty squarely and white readers and writers; nothing i have to say will be surprising, groundbreaking, or even particularly interesting to people of color.

2: these are made-up examples; i’m not trying to publicly shame or embarrass any of the email-writers, who i think are mostly well-intentioned, doing their best to navigate a shifting cultural landscape. (mostly).

3: if you can just flip your character’s race from brown or Black to white, without reevaluating the entire plot and character arc of your book, i suspect…..deeper issues.

4: ida b. agreed to go to the back, then stepped right the hell out in front when the march began, because ida b. did not come here to play games.

further reading

the written world: of tragedy

news

because my publicist, Ellen Wright, is an unstoppable force of creativity and adaptivity, i get to do a virtual tour for the paperback release of The Ten Thousand Doors! you can register for any or all of the following events for free, and if you order a book through the bookstore you'll get a signed bookplate! i’ll be reading from the book and answering questions and reading from The Once and Future Witches!

and The Ten Thousand Doors is a Hugo finalist! which makes it (so far) a finalist for the Nebulas, Audies, Goodreads Choice, Kitchies, Compton Crook, Crawford, and Alex awards. i………….have never written them all out like that. i’m going to take a deep breath and walk downstairs so that my toddlers can smear their sticky hands on my sweatpants and remind me that this is real life.

of tragedy

i’m re-reading wuthering heights for the first time since i was a teenager and i am pleased to report that, to quote the great rebecca kuang, it slaps, actually. it slaps so hard i’m forced to wonder if i actually did read it as a teenager, or just checked it out of the college library and carried it around self-importantly for half a semester. i do remember a dim sense of alarm, of wind-whipped horizons and midnight moors, and i think my sunshiney heart recoiled from such things. i was an Austen girl, looking for tidy moral lessons and happily ever afters. i didn’t (and still mostly don’t, to be honest) understand why anyone would write a sad ending when they could’ve written a happy one.

but apparently now, at 30, i’ve developed a taste for the dark and gothic, the wild and wanton, the cold and cruel. apparently i have in interest in unsuitable matches (“he’s a bird of bad omen: no mate for you”) and tragic choices (“i have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine”) and beautiful, terrible grief (“you said I killed you—haunt me, then!”) (ugh, doesn’t it give you chills, that last one?).

but like. why?

i read an interview with andrea arnold, the director of an especially artsy 2011 adaptation of the novel. she claimed casually that heathcliff was really an unexplored part of cathy, a way for Bronte to explore the dark, violent, savage side of femininity, all those parts of herself she kept neatly folded away. as a piece of literary criticism, i like it (“I am heathcliff!”); as a reader, i hate it (heathcliff is himself and cathy is herself! the entire problem is the cruelty of their separateness, their bodies a pair of prisons for their shared soul!); as a writer, I think it’s probably true.

i mean, we’re always writing ourselves, right? we’re splitting our souls into human-shaped pieces, giving them names and backstories, filling them with our hopes and terrors and idiosyncrasies. cathy and heathcliff are both emily bronte. and—maybe, just a little, on bad days—they’re me, too.

don’t get me wrong: i am and will always remain deeply basic, obnoxiously lucky, fundamentally cheery, et cetera—but at 30 i’ve accumulated a few more clouds on my horizon than i had at 17. maybe i want to see my own small, domestic tragedies writ large, given scope and drama, played out over two accursed generations. maybe there’s a catharsis and an honesty in tragedy i couldn’t have understood before, but do now.

anyway. everyone feel free to email me your wuthering heights/gothic romance feelings. let us discuss how kylo is absolutely a heathcliff. join me in my disproportionate hate of nelly dean.

let’s end by reflecting on what an absolute banger of a first paragraph this quote could be:

“I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind. And this is one.”

other reading

  • to continue our wuthering heights theme: did you know tasha suri is doing a subversive anticolonial retelling of wuthering heights????? and we’re also getting retellings of robin hood (aminah mae safi) and treasure island (c.b. lee) and little women (bethany c. morrow)????

  • if you, like me, are stuck at home with small children and can’t take them to the park or the playground or the library or your mom’s or the zoo, you should know that my husband is a part-time children’s librarian and he’s doing a weekly facebook live kid’s show, tuesdays and thursdays at 10am, at it’s literally the cutest thing that has ever happened.

the written world: of comfort

my husband doesn’t re-read books or re-watch movies, as a rule. and yet he married me, a person who could happily sit down to watch The Last Jedi at literally any time of the day or night; a person who finished Uprooted and simply turned back to the first page and continued as if nothing happened; a person who appears to have a good memory for quotes and passages, but has actually just driven them into her brain through staggering repetition.

i re-read things like it’s my job. like somebody important sat me down as a small child and said, solemnly, “it is your task on this earth to live, to love, and to read Watership Down at least twenty-five times before you’re thirty.” when i read too many new books in a row i get an anxious, dangerous feeling behind my breastbone, as if i’m edging closer and closer to an invisible precipice. sooner or later i have to turn around and run for home.

i don’t pick my re-reads casually; in a lifetime of reading i have a relatively short list of books i can return to again and again. it’s not really about the objective goodness of the book, if there’s even any such thing as objective quality. there are lots of phenomenal books i’ve only read two or three times, mostly because they’re too much work (The Brothers Karamazov), or they hurt too much (Beloved), or they had a clever gimmick that’s more fun the first time (The City & The City), or I’m afraid I’ve outgrown them and they won’t fit anymore (The Catcher in the Rye), or just because I never seem to be in the mood (all of cormac mccarthy).

the ideal book for re-reading has a sort of glow to it. a warmth, like sunshine, or a heat, like love. it has to feel like sitting in a squashy armchair with my legs tucked under me in winter or lying on a towel at the edge of a pool in the summer. anyway, given [gestures at the global pandemic and careening economy and cruel capitalist rhetoric] all this, i thought i’d share some of the books with which i’m constructing my personal blanket fort:

  • everything robin mckinley has ever written, but especially The Blue Sword and Spindle’s End and Deerskin. they offer: girls with swords; girls in love with good boys; girls caught in the spiderweb glimmer of fairy tales they can’t quite escape. also, good dogs.

  • if you dig robin mckinley, you probably also dig naomi novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and katherine arden’s Winternight trilogy. again: girls with magic and swords.

  • everything lois mcmaster bujold has ever written, but especially Cordelia’s Honor and The Curse of Chalion. cordelia’s honor contains the first two books in the Vorkosigan Saga, and i just love them so damn much. the curse of chalion is an unbearably slow political (or maybe theological?) fantasy with a heart of purest gold.

  • casey mcquiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue. a straight-up romance, y’all. contains the phrase bitch mcconnell, which i think we all need.

  • chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. even though this is a crushing book full of hurt and anguish, it still feels like escape? maybe because it’s about escape, when we need it most.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. look. i know it’s 900 pages. i know it has footnotes. but that’s because it’s not a book so much as a place you can go, a world which will swallow you whole and leave you listening for the distant sound of bells.

  • nicola griffith’s Ammonite. an insufficient number of people have read this book. it’s about a planet of women on the precipice of genocide and the anthropologist who becomes a traveling storyteller and falls in love and saves everybody??

  • n.k. jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. is The Fifth Season technically superior? yes. but 100k Kingdoms has a superior number of hot gods and matriarchies, so???

  • Circe. a retold set of myths full of longing and magic and anger transmuted slowly and beautifully into hope. i’ve only read it once, but i can already feel the re-read coming.

anyway. tell me your re-reads. give me the books that feel like perfect cups of coffee or old-fashioned letters in the mail, the books that leave your heart high and aching.

other reading

  • kentucky’s new governor is doing an amazing job during this crisis. he gives these calm, comforting daily addresses where he gently lectures the businesses that refuse to close down (looking at you, Pike County bingo hall). but i’m not sharing those daily addresses; i’m sharing this facebook post from a kentucky mayor, which begins “listen up dipshits” and improves from there. i choose to believe this mayor is andy beshear’s anger translator.

  • lindsay king-miller has a new essay up at Electric Lit called “writing doesn’t have to hurt” and honestly i think we should all read it? my favorite line: “bleeding on the page mostly just makes a mess.”

  • i just finished andrea stewart’s Bone Shard Daughter, out this September, and if you ever loved the classic big sprawling epic fantasies of the 90s--the complex systems of magic and the dozens of viewpoint characters and the tangled politics--this is like that but actually good. smart, efficient, buttery smooth. i loved it.

news

it feels like the book-world has stopped spinning--the bookstores are closed and the airports are closed and the publishers are working from home and amazon’s not shipping books right now--but anyway the paperback of The Ten Thousand Doors of Januaryis out on May 14th??? and you can preorder The Once and Future Witches? i would encourage you to go through your local indie, if you can. lots of them are surviving on online orders right now.

other than that...i’ve got a first draft done of my Tor.com novella (sleeping beauty meets spider-verse, lots of princesses crash together to get out of their shitty stories), and the very earliest beginnings of what i desperately hope will be my next book. it’s way too early to tell, but it might have a kind of glow to it.

the written world: of snakes and tails

the best part of Knives Out (there are many best parts of Knives Out; it is a movie comprised exclusively of best-parts glued together with a southern drawl and a sly wink) is the coffee mug. in the opening shot of the movie the camera lingers on a mug with the words “my house, my rules, my coffee” in goofy red font. it catches your eye because it’s so tacky, because the rest of the set is all class and money and there’s this ugly-ass dollar-store mug proclaiming power in a way that the genuinely powerful rarely do because they don’t have to.

you don’t think about that mug again until the final scene, when (SPOILER) the former maid takes a slow sip from it as she contemplates everything that now belongs to her: the coffee, the house, the rules themselves.

i think i might have cackled out loud when i saw it. i might have fist-pumped. partly it was the simple but pure delight of seeing undeserving rich people stripped of their wealth--another best part of Knives Out is the reading of the will--but partly it was the deep satisfaction of watching a wild sprawl of story resolve itself into a perfect, clean circle.

i feel like there’s probably a term for this that i don’t know because i’ve never taken a writing class. it’s the thing where a story echoes with itself, where every stray hair is tucked neatly into place, nothing wasted, nothing forgotten. it sounds like it would feel contrived or mechanical, and maybe it does when it’s done poorly. but done right--there’s nothing like it. it’s a key in a lock, a snake swallowing its own tail. 

there’s not very much writing that really, truly feels like this. i seem to find it more often in short stories and film, probably because word limits encourage a certain economy. my best example right now is Paddington 2 (i’m serious). it’s like a perfect little music box of a movie, where every action ripples and repeats and every character trait exists for a reason. or the first Pirates of the Caribbean (i’m still serious), which is terrible and absurd but also invents its own mythology and believes in it with admirable, self-referential abandon. the pirate’s code. parley. leverage. will turner’s unlikely but useful ability to throw swords in such a way that they bury themselves point-first in wooden objects. even the soundtrack plays along, repeating the same adventurous notes every time someone is about to do something incredibly stupid.

i don’t have a lesson here, except that i want to do that. i want my stories to echo against themselves and i don’t know how. (if any of you know the secret, please do tell me. i will make an embarrassing fortune writing perfect stories and mention you in the acknowledgements of all my books). i bet it take lots of rewriting--returning to the beginning and weaving your endings into the opening, tucking away every stray hair of story. i bet it helps to look at what you’ve already written as you write. to pull from your own mythology rather than constantly, exhaustively inventing new things and places and people.

i bet it’s one of those things you do best when you’re not trying too hard, like ping pong or baking. i am haunted by the memory of salinger’s glass brothers playing marbles in the magic hour before dusk, and seymour advising his brother: “could you try not aiming so much?” bastard. he was probably right.

news

there’s a lot this month! i am compelled to use many more exclamation points than i normally would!! in an effort to communicate the anxious, guilty glee i feel toward my own good fortune!!! The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. this means that mary robinette kowal (mary robinette kowal) called me on the phone (the phone) and i cried (while on the phone with mary robinette kowal). 2019 was a phenomenal year in SFF publishing, and it’s an absurd honor to be nominated alongside arkady martine, tamsyn muir, sarah pinsker, silvia moreno-garcia, and charles gannon.

also….my next title and cover were revealed at bookriot!! and it’s. so. beautiful. it’s tangled and thorned, with venom hidden among the vines, and i can’t tell you how well it suits the book i wrote. it was designed by lisa marie pompilio at Orbit Books, and reader? i would die for her.

The Once and Future Witches comes out in October of this year (this year). i talked a little more about the book here.

other reading

  • this tweet and accompanying video--a compilation of all the bananapants questions asked on the 90s show Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction--is maybe the funniest thing i’ve ever seen. the internet was leading up to this point, and it’s all downhill from here.

  • i’m supposed to be reading a bunch of exciting books for blurbing, but instead i got swallowed whole by tasha suri’s Books of Ambha series: Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash. they were both absolutely fucking great. the perfect combination of indulgent, heart-fluttery romance and high-stakes epic fantasy. sometimes (always) all i want in the world is to watch a woman save (or destroy) an empire while falling for a gentle, tortured man trying desperately to be good in a cruel world.

the written world: of love

recently i’ve been reading two things i’ve never read before: romance and fanfiction. 

i’d like to think it wasn’t sheer snottiness that kept me away, but it probably was. i had a vague, well-meaning protectiveness toward fanfiction, borne of many friends who have written and read it, but i somehow never picked it up myself. i had an awed respect for romance writers, having been on book-twitter long enough to know that one of the cardinal rules of book-twitter is thou shalt not fuck with the romance writers--but i never actually read them.

i write to you now having read Red, White, and Royal Blue, four books of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and no fewer than three novel-length fics about space wizards. Reader: i regret every second of time i wasted not reading this shit. it’s joyful and smart and indulgent and wise, and i was a fool and a snob.

i’m aware that “romance is good, actually” is a room-temperature take at best. nothing i’m saying is particularly novel; lots of writers before me have figured out that--surprise!--one of the most popular and beloved literary genres has something to teach us all. but this newsletter is my reading journal, not breaking news, so indulge me while i think about what made these books so damn delightful.

lesson #1: hearts first, everything else second

romances are a little like SFF books turned inside out. instead of prioritizing plot and concept and structure, romance prioritizes character. and not what’s done to them or what challenges they face, but just how they feel. the stakes are rarely higher than a single human heart. entire scenes exist simply to move our heroine from irritated to intrigued; whole three-act-structures are built around the slow accumulation of trust. 

it was revelatory--and honestly pretty radical--to see so much attention paid to the interior lives of women. to see their fears and fantasies given weight, the fulfillment of their needs prioritized over literally everything else. so many narratives only care what is done to women characters, or what they do to and for men; romance cares what they want.

when i brainstorm books and outline plots i’m often thinking of things my characters will do, things that will happen to them. it’s often only deep in the drafting process that i unearth all those pesky whys and what-fors and wants, the beating hearts inside my poor puppets. what if i started first with their hearts, and built the stage around them?

lesson #2: readers first

maybe even more than the hearts of its characters, romance cares about the hearts of its readers. i’ve never felt so indulged, so cared-for. it was like falling asleep with an absolute guarantee that my dreams would be good ones. i knew, knew, i was going to get the kiss, the proposal, the triumph over (sometimes hilariously contrived) obstacles, the happily ever after.

until i read romance and fanfiction i didn’t realize how often i read with my heart braced, my armor half-on, never sure if the hands i’m in are good ones. i wonder now if that’s why i re-read books so often: because it’s exhausting to read with my breath held.

my second book is a lot darker than my first; i struggled to write it. i veered too heavy and then too light again, caught between the hideous realities of women’s history and the wonder of witching. in the end i returned to the reason i write fantasy in the first place: because it’s better than reality, just a little. because i want the truth, but not unvarnished. because i don’t want to read with my armor on.

other reading

  • i regret to inform you all that i’m a regular listener to John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. it’s pretentious; it’s slow; it sounds like something Parks and Rec would invent to make fun of NPR. and yet i’m generally brought to tears at least once an episode because i am exactly the kind of overwrought angsty millennial for whom this show is made. last episode, it was a quote from Donald Hall’s memorial essay for his wife, titled “The Third Thing.”

  • i finished Camilla Bruce’s forthcoming You Let Me In, about a little girl who speaks with faeries or maybe just invents them to survive. it’s cold, harsh, cutting, vicious, dark, cruel--everything i just said i didn’t want. and yet i can’t stop thinking about it. in the end i think it actually was the truth rendered a little bit better--it’s just that the truth, in this case, is so crushingly bleak.

  • i adored Gerwig’s Little Women, and this account of her artistic and literary influences was honestly a delight. the seriousness and attention she brings to the inner lives of young women is not unlike the romance genre as a whole, now that i’m thinking of it.

news

  • i’ll be doing a little Q&A and signing at the Shelby County Public Library on thursday, february 13th, from 6-7 pm

  • i have a story coming out in the next issue of Fireside Magazine (along with a bunch of other writers)! it’s basically labyrinth mixed with the ransom of red chief, and it’s only 1500 words.

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