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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 04:55 pm (UTC)
I never said it contradicted it. Nor am absolving Americans of all responsibility. I merely would like to see the British realize how much of the modern world and its real troubles are the results of their earlier actions. Consider the situation in Africa, for instance . . .
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely.
(No way I'm going to argue on that one; I'm Indian. I can't exactly avoid the damage the British have done :))
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Indeed! :-)

Jul. 21st, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
Shweta, I am so sorry about my ancestors. I really am. I wish there was more I could do.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
One thing I firmly believe is that you're not responsible for them.

Another thing I firmly believe is that much of my privilege now comes from *my* ancestors working *with* them, and getting the benefits of that. I know that my great-grandfather was in the Civil Service under the Raj, for example.

So you most certainly don't owe me apologies :)

It's the fallout, today, on (for example) Dalit women in India, that I think we *are* responsible for, together, because of the benefits we're still reaping from the inequalities "our people" have reified. But right now I don't know what to do about that except read & learn & deconstruct classist/caste-based thinking I've been given as truth.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. Class and caste are hugely damaging, remain hugely damaging and must be addressed and unpicked.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
Which is all the more reason why it matters, right, that we stop and think about other perspectives and try not to step on already-sore toes. Coming back to your post...
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:10 pm (UTC)
If we all were responsible utterly for our ancestors deeds, all Germans - even half-Arabian ones like me - should have to commit suicide.

I do believe we (all the people who are reaping the benefits of exploiting other countries and cultures, destroying natives, etc.) need to keep the awareness - of what we are capable of - alive to try and guard against the traits in us that made the horrors possible - whether it is Fascism, Racism, Imperialism, Nazism - so that these can hopefully not come into power again.

There is a reason why German history in 9th grade of all our schools solely focusses on World War I and II.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:54 pm (UTC)
If we all were responsible utterly for our ancestors deeds, all Germans - even half-Arabian ones like me - should have to commit suicide.

I sort of suspect that most of the species would need to, because of one atrocity or another.

whether it is Fascism, Racism, Imperialism, Nazism - so that these can hopefully not come into power again.

Well except racism and imperialism are very much in power now, and that's what I think we should worry about most -- the ways in which racial and national inequalities are, right now, institutionalized and empowered and perpetuated, keeping things utterly unjust for so many people.
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
*nod* I didn't mean to imply the traits were completely defeated already, sorry!
Well except racism and imperialism are very much in power now, and that's what I think we should worry about most

We definitely can't stop there. I honestly had a pupil tell me this year that the imperialist countries should move back into Africa to restore order, because Africans could obviously not be trusted to rule themselves - just look at Tunisia, Lybia, Egypt and Algeria.

I am not sure that my follow-up explanation of why that was a remarkably short-sighted point-of-view made much of an impression on him.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
In fact, David Cameron recently said, and while I paraphrase I don't do so very much, "Most of the world's problems these days are directly Britain's fault."

He caught a whole lot of shit for saying that, but he wasn't wrong. :)
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
I missed that. He has a sense of responsibility? Who knew! And he was right, for once, too.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
No kidding! Yeah, here's the quote:

Answering questions from students in Pakistan on Tuesday, the prime minister said: "As with so many of the problems of the world, we are responsible for their creation in the first place."
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
Good for him, for once.
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
We do know, really we do. And we talk about it and fret about it and try to do better. And none of our governments do enough in my view. And I consider Thatcher's behaviour to the Hong Kong Chinese to be shameful and indefensive, right up there with her 'friendship' Pinochet and her double standards over South Africa. One of the things about history is that we should, in my view, own all of our culture's history, not just the bits that are comfortable, we should admit and face our huge huge acts of evil. I try hard to do this. It's one of the reasons I refuse to cherry-pick amongst my ancestors and only admit to the 'safe' ones or to play the oppressed Celt card.
I am so very sorry if I've upset you. I really wasn't trying to do that.

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