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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.


Jul. 21st, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
Very good points.

Another piece of the Americentric nature of current fiction is that not all regions of the US are held in equal value. There's some egregious categorizations of certain regions which are as farcical as the faux Eurocentric fantasies can be.

My twitches tend toward representations of the US frontier days. The stuff is NOT that hard to research but some of it is...sigh.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
The whole idea that New York City is the center of the universe comes to mind. Alas, since so many publishers live there, that idea still shapes some of what gets published, though it's not as bad as it was in the 1960s and 70s.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:53 pm (UTC)
Ya But! if you've ever lived successfully in the Rotten Apple, even if you currently reside somewhere else, a part of you(of me) will alway believe that the universe DOES revolve around NYC. Mea culpa! But that's a discussion for a different post.
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
That's because everyone comes here. I am currently reveling in seeing friends from Mali, from Haiti, from Louisiana and from Brasil. This last academice year living in a small college town on Maryland's Eastern Shore -- I felt I'd dropped out of the world. I loved it, but I didn't see my friends ... I did make new friends though!

Love, C.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
Heh. I can honestly say I've never been to NYC.

Maybe one day, but it's not on the immediate schedule.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:56 am (UTC)
Yes, I left there 30 years ago next year. And while I have lived and loved all over Europe: Crete, the Abruzzi, Franche Comté, London, Helsinki and now Saaremaa Estonia. Some part of me will always be a Neu Yawker.

(no subject) - al_zorra - Jul. 22nd, 2011 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - al_zorra - Jul. 22nd, 2011 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 22nd, 2011 05:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
Ha. I can't say I'm from New York without specifying upstate New York, or people will think I mean NYC. Stop naming your cities and states the same thing!!

But of course my idea of 'upstate New York' is different from people in NYC, who think going an hour out and hitting the suburbs of NYC counts. :)
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:43 pm (UTC)
not all regions of the US are held in equal value.

*thank* you.

That goes for NYC as well; anyone read any genre fic set in ungentrified Bed Stuy or Fort Greene lately?
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:08 pm (UTC)
I have often wondered about this: so much of what I read seems to ignore or elide huge parts of the US, or represent it in what seems to be a stereotypical way and I suspect that that is deeply distressing. And certainly, it winds me up when our UK media do it about the British regions.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
seems to ignore or elide huge parts of the US, or represent it in what seems to be a stereotypical way

pretty much, yeah.

I suspect that that is deeply distressing.

At this point? I've come not to expect much better. I think it will only change when genre gatekeepers reflect the diversity of genre authors, and I doubt that will happen anytime soon.
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:23 pm (UTC)
or maybe i should say "genre writers".
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 21st, 2011 08:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC)
Boy, ain't that ever the truth...
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:39 am (UTC)
Yeah. The conversion of Portland to "Portlandia," home of the hipsters and brewsters, is unrecognizable to those of us who don't participate in that particular subculture...just to speak for one area on its way to getting hyperinflated and distorted...

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