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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

aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:30 pm (UTC)
The predominant culture in the US up until the 1960s was a strange descendant of the British Way. It's one of the things that the wretched Tea Party is trying to bring back, their all white English-only-speaking "common decency" view of the 1950s, when they were in charge and all those nasty Others knew their place.

The US is huge. French, German, and Scandanavian culture influenced only small pockets of it. Ditto the Asian cultures I take for granted out here in California. The one serious rival to this distorted view of What Being English Means is Hispanic culture, and that's why so many rightwing Americans freak out at the idea of Spanish language TV and other manifestations of its growing power. Even that, however, is limited to certain regions in the States.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
I didn't know this. Thank you. Victorian Britain was a vile place and I'm so sorry you got stuck with it. And with the Puritans, or at least the legacy of their religious intolerance. That was an appalling thing to do to the American continent, it really was. We should have put them on a small, uninhabited rock and left them.
birdsedge
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:13 pm (UTC)
Ha, at the time, wasn't that what they thought they were doing? It's just that the 'uninhabited' rock was quite large, got an awful lot more inhabited, and turned into the USA. There's a good idea for an alt. history. What if some other place had got the puritans? Australia? The moon?

But Kari, love, the apology shouldn't come from you or me or any of us working Brits. We had nothing to do with those Puritan exporting, colonising and empire building days. You say you don't want to play the downtrodden Celt card, but most of us Brits are descended from the the working poor who hadn't even got the vote at the time the British Empire was doing its worst around the world. At the time the British Empire was playing fast and loose with its foreign policy my great-great-great grandmothers were underground in Somerset and Yorkshire, pulling coal tubs like pit ponies. While I appreciate that the rulers of the British Empire were bastards - they were also bastards to their own people.

And to a certain extent it's still happening. So few of us wanted the Blair/Bush war, but we didn't seem to be able to stop it. Just as the USians didn't seem to be able to do anything about the Florida debacle in the first (baby) Bush election. I may have the vote, but it's a long time since I felt empowered by it. I look at all our major parties and can't find one politician who appears trustworthy, ethical and sensible.

How much are we as individuals responsible for what our government does?

shweta_narayan is quite right.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
We knew it was inhabited: that was indefensible.
I agree that the direct agency wasn't there for most of our personal ancestors. But the jobs that were there were partly fuelled by the profits of empire... It's hugely complex and hard to unpick.
But yes, to the way governments seem to ignore the bulk of those they govern.
birdsedge
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:19 am (UTC)
And the unpicking of the benefits of colonialism would take a better seamstress than me.
(no subject) - scribble_myname - Dec. 30th, 2011 08:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Dec. 31st, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
heleninwales
Jul. 22nd, 2011 02:10 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to second what you said, birdsedge. I already have a big enough guilt about my own inadequacies as a person and mother without taking on board guilt that doesn't really belong to me.

Like you, not only was I not born when Britain was being expansionist and colonialist but my ancestors who were alive at the time were totally powerless to do anything to prevent it. They were illiterate farm labourers in the fields of Shropshire and Salford slum dwellers. Even the men of the family wouldn't have had the vote. Becoming a coal miner at the end of the 19th century was a step up the class system for my great-granddad.

All I can do is try my best here in the present to make things better for present and future generations.
(no subject) - birdsedge - Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
joycemocha
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:35 am (UTC)
Add me as a third onto this. Completely.
scamis
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:05 am (UTC)
The US is the way it is partially because Europe tried to get rid of all its religious crazies by sending them here.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:14 am (UTC)
I know. We're sorry...
al_zorra
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:22 pm (UTC)
Well there was a lot more German influence here than 'small pockets.'

The Germans brought radical, progressive action with them in huge numbers after the European debacle of the failed reform movements of the 1840's. They settled in large numbers in NYC and throughout the then country including Missouri and Kansas, as well as the upper midwest. They had newspapers -- and they were abolitionists from the gitgo -- the work ethic, the Lutheran conviction that the laborer is worthy of his hire, in other words you get PAID for your work. This is one of the big reasons for the Kansas-Missouri war that bled into the Civil War, as mentioned above. Also the Germans who had immigrated to the South, left again, for these same reasons -- except for the big German movements such as Moravians out of Pennsylvania to Maryland, which had a lot to do with keeping Maryland in the Union.

It was Woodrow Wilson's WWI and particularly Hitler's WWII that drove almost all mention of the large and honorable role played by German immigrants and German thought. Just read Louisa May Alcott's chronicles of the March family, or the biography of George Eliot, to get a shadow of how important German thought and intellectuals were in the 19th century all through Europe, England and the U.S.

Also, let us not forget that the ruling attitude about history among so many is 'it's just a narrative anyway, there's no real difference between history and fiction.'

Love, C.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
Certainly parts of the US diet look more German to me than British, but that may well be as much down to land use as anything else.
shweta_narayan
Jul. 22nd, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
Something I remember from a sociolinguistics class -- we had a graph of languages by popularity in the US, and till 1940 or so German was I think in second place? Then it dropped steeply, of course; and now it seems to be very far from common knowledge.
joycemocha
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:32 am (UTC)
The predominant culture in the US up until the 1960s was a strange descendant of the British Way.

This is so, so true. One of the earliest writings to open my mind about cultural imperialism was an Earnestly Serious piece in a reading book of mine from 6th grade...a "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" piece about an Anglo boy dating a Hungarian girl. Some of the expressed attitudes were quite ugly.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:48 am (UTC)
Sadly, those kinds of attitudes aren't unique to one country and one era.

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