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Other people's toes: a rant

So yesterday I finally got around to reading the May issue of the SFWA Bulletin, the one focusing on the Nebulas. Lots of interesting stuff, as usual and all the regular features, so far so good. And a piece by Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear.
Now, I was underwhelmed by seeing these win the best novel award, because the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and -- as an Oxbridge historian -- I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently (I had the same issues with Doomsday Book). But that's my opinion, and the Nebulas are a US award and people do make cultural errors. So and all...
Then I read her short piece in the Bulletin. Here's the key excerpt. 'That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating -- the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What's not to like.'

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, 'How about all the dead civilians? That's not to like at all.'
Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun. My Uncle Bob served in the army and was at Dunkirk, and subsequently, due to shell shock, was put to digging bodies out of the rubble left by bombs in London. He never got over it. My Auntie Florrie contracted TB of the bone while working as an army nurse and died young as a result. My mother, then a junior school child, lived less than 8 miles from where Hess was being kept as a prisoner, though she didn't find this out till she was in her 50s. She remembers the evacuees, too, miserable and terrified and confused. My father can remember finding the hand, still in its glove, of a Canadian pilot whose plane was shot down. None of that is fun.

Here's my point. History is not a theme park. It's not a story, either. It's people's real lives. If you're going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because -- as Ms Willis did with me -- otherwise, you're going to find someone's sore place, someone's vulnerability, someone's sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you're going to do damage. Other countries aren't theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They're homes to millions, they're people's lives, too.

I didn't know I had a hot button about the Blitz. I was taken aback, rather, by how strongly I felt about this. Doomsday Book annoyed the hell out of me, because the errors were so egregious and so easily avoidable. The same is true of the errors in Blackout/All Clear. And I'm inured to people's assumptions about how stupid, how dim, how un-rigorous and unscientific and woolly historians must be because, after all, anyone can do that job, anyone can read books about the past, can't they? You don't spend 30+ years specialising in an obscure historical period without hearing every negative view going about your value, status, skills and profession.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it's not fun, it's not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all. I'm sure Ms Willis didn't mean her comments that way, either. I've never met her, but what I've read suggests that she's a perfectly nice, intelligent woman. She written some books I like and some I don't like. That's on me, not her. I'm sure she didn't set out to hurt or offend. This is about my perceptions, my reactions. I accept that completely.

And while I'm talking about this, let's have a look at another phrase I'm seeing a lot lately, 'Eurocentric fantasy'. This, as far as I can tell, means fantasies set in backgrounds drawn from a sort of default idea of mediaeval Europe (usually Western Europe at that). I understand what people mean by this, and what they are thinking about. The thing is, as a European myself, these fantasies don't feel 'Eurocentric' to me. They don't feel like Europe at all, they feel like a mix of 50s Hollywood historicals and Las Vegas, they are theme park fantasies -- right up there with that 'England' where everyone is either Hugh Grant or a Cockney, and we have names like Rupert and Gwendolen (not in my lifetime, oh Buffy -- and Wesley is a surname, not a first name in the social class that Wesley Windom-Price is supposed to come from). I get how this happens -- we have 'theme park' America here, a land of cowboys and drive-ins and deep-fried bacon. I got into a discussion a few days ago on jimhines blog about the term 'First World', and how to me it means something different to what it seems to mean to many non-Britons. We have different understandings of the world, depending on who we are and where we live, on what we are, on what we have learned and observed. But when I see the whole 'Eurocentric' thing as a slam, while my head understands what is meant, my heart hears something else. My heart hears, "well, *your* past is rubbish and overdone and bad, and we've mined it out and used up all the fun stuff anyway and now it's just this huge negative thing that we don't want any more". (I am not here demanding that we get a free pass against the many many bad things done by the British through history. I am talking about 2ndary world fantasies drawing on European cultural tropes.) Plus, some of the tropes and themes mean different things to us now to what they did in the past, or to what they mean to the European diaspora.

I'm not saying all fantasies based on European histories are bad. There are many good ones -- I've written about Judith Tarr's and Kit Kerr's before. And there are more. But those are properly researched, properly thought through. They're not highlights and assumptions and 'isn't this cool'? I do my best to be careful with my own books: I read about the same volume for my fiction as I do for my academic writing and I try to do my best. I probably make mistakes. My feet are clay. I hope I'm not doing too desperately badly.

I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people's things, histories, homes. We don't all understand the same things in what we read, we don't all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It's far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It's far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

And this is a very British blog post. I seem to be turning into the poster girl for this kind of thing, lately. But it sits in my head and it niggles, and... Well, that's me, I guess.
I'm friends'-locking for now: will open it if others think that would be a good idea.

Skirt of the day: jeans.

Saturday update: I'm still here reading but today I won't have time to post. I will be back and commenting tomorrow. Have a great day.

Comments

fidelioscabinet
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)
You go, girl.

I have an American Civil War-related twitch similar to your Blitz twitch. What my mother's family in Missouri, and my father's in Mississippi, lived through in no way resembled Gone with the Wind; even Cold Mountain doesn't do justice to the experience of living in the middle of a guerrilla war (Missouri) or a collapsing society under constant threat of armed assault from invaders (Mississippi).
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC)
I can absolutely see that.
fidelioscabinet
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
So if I have a "Not like you think it was" issue or two, and you have one or two--why, maybe just about everyone does! Who could ever have imagined?


/shocking display of naivety.

I know it's easy to be boneheaded about this sort of thing, because so many of us are, at least once or twice. But how hard is it to extrapolate from the mistakes other people make about things we ourselves are familiar with to the notion that we can get stuff wrong as well? Especially after a couple of embarrassing experiences, even if they were small, private ones.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
I wish I knew. Maybe it's simpler not to think about it, sometimes? Or maybe people get empathy fatigue.
scamis
Jul. 21st, 2011 10:34 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. My great-grandfather joined the Confederate Army when he was sixteen. He was wounded twice, at Monocacy and at Hatcher's Run. If you know anything about the casualty statistics for that war, then you know how astonishing it is that he lived.

Related to the WWII stuff...people also gloss over what it was like for the American soldiers. My father, a Georgia farm boy, wound up sleeping on the ground in the winter of 1944 in Germany with nothing but a wool blanket. He was also on Omaha beach, in a later wave and said that he had to go zigzag and take long strides to keep from stepping on bodies. He told me that people would ask him "what was it like?" but they didn't really want to know.

In MY medieval Eurocentric fantasy, I have a household of upper-class women working together on a tapestry. This caused someone critiquing it to complain that it was confusing because they had servants but were doing work. **headdesk**
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:10 am (UTC)
My grandfather had stories like that about WW1 and being in the trenches. I don't think anyone can go through war unchanged, and those of us who have been spared this need to be respectful and genuinely empathetic about that.
I am no longer surprised about what people assume or don't know about the middle ages!
(Anonymous)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
It wasn't that they didn't know. It's that they were arguing with my attempt at realism. *sigh*
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:42 pm (UTC)
Oh, good grief...
stlscape
Jul. 29th, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC)
It frustrates the heck out of me, too. Living in the US, my family wasn't affected by the Blitz, but the Civil War? Yeah. According to what we were able to piece together from genealogical sources, most of the men aged 15 to 45, in the extended family, died as prisoners - dysentery, measles, etc. The women of the family not only lost spouses and children, but had to try and eke out a living by themselves, while raising the remaining family, without the assistance of the strongly-muscled males who'd gone off to war and never returned. Most of the women wound up losing their property as well. Some were "lucky" and remarried to men who were willing to feed and clothe their children. NOT fun times at all.

So many people today (and I'm thinking specifically American here, but it probably applies everywhere) are what my daughter and I term "Oprah ladies". They're the ladies in the audience of the Oprah show, who are (apparently for the first time ever) shown through the topic of the show that life is not all tea cakes and roses and butterflies and kittens. You can tell from their faces that they had no idea that there was more going on in the world than getting their kids to soccer practice or ballet at the right time, and that some humans can be pretty unpleasant beings at times.
la_marquise_de_
Aug. 1st, 2011 11:17 am (UTC)
No war is fun for those who have to live through it, military or civilian. We belittle their experience every time we forget this. And the displaced and the dispossessed -- widows, orphans, refugees, conquered peoples -- suffer most, I suspect, and over the longest time. Yet their stories are often forgotten or elided.
One of the reasons I love kateelliott's Crossroads series so much is that these are precisely the people whose stories she tells.

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