Revising “Weaving Dreams”

There are times, as a writer, when you screw up in a story. Sometimes that means getting an emotional beat wrong. Sometimes it means writing something racist or colonialist, or both.

When I wrote “Weaving Dreams” last year, I was annoyed by all the stories in which the European Faerie Queen rules in North America and everything is structured along European lines. Years ago, I had spent a lot of time working with the Klickatat for a show called Bridge of the Gods and had become familiar with Coyote and She Who Watches. For similar reasons, I was aware of the Cherokee hidden people such as the Nunne’hi and Yunwi Tsunsdi’. With all of these supernatural beings already populating North America, I couldn’t see any reason for them to vanish when Irish faeries arrived.

So I wanted to write a world in which the two populations met and got along.

Instead, I wrote a story that perpetuated the myth of the psychotic half-breed who is ultimately defeated by white magic.

Fortunately, Lavie Tidhar made a tweet flagging the use of “diminutive half-breed” and then was gracious enough to actually talk to me about it. He and Aliette de Bodard took time at World Fantasy to point out some of the places where my intentions did not match what was actually on the page.

I talked to Lynne Thomas, my editor at Apex, and since the story is in electronic format, we decided to post a revised version for the website.

Let me talk about the specifics of the changes because I suspect I’m not the only person with these blind spots.

Original:

His English was perfect, only the rolled R and lilt betraying his origins.

What was happening here was that the sentence on the page displayed my default setting American English is “correct,” and then went on to say that any other accent is a betrayal of the right way to talk. It’s not. I know better and it wasn’t even what I meant, but it is what I wrote.

It now reads, “His English was grammatically perfect, as always, but the rolled R and lilt hinted at his origins.”

Edited to add: Some good comments about this from Jed down below, and some other comments on the story itself have made me revise that. I’m going to give you the full paragraph for context.

The historian strode up the hill from their car with his gear slung over one shoulder and somehow managed to look like a runway model straight from Milan. “You could bring them with you, you know.” God. His accent just made her knees weak– Inappropriate, Eva. Focus on work.

Original:

A diminutive half-breed, he was part Cherokee Fae and part Gaelic Fae.

There are a number of problematic things in this sentence.

  • “half-breed” is a pejorative term.
  • Cherokee Fae– I’d written this entire story because I didn’t want a European structure, then called the hidden people here “Fae” and talked about “Faerie.” So, I’m slapping a European label on as a default. My rationale, at the time, was that I needed an umbrella term and schools still tend to default to Eurocentric terms. Except, I’m wrong. Not just for the obvious reasons that it is undercutting what I wanted the story to do, but also because the term Faerie has been rooted out of folklore studies in academia as the default. I decided to either use the specific name of the supernatural creature or use the term “Hidden People” since there are a number of cultures that use variations on that term. I didn’t want to use “supernatural creature” because this is a world where magic is part of the natural world.
  • Gaelic Fae – I totally did not research this, instead relying on what I thought I knew. What I wound up doing was lumping a whole bunch of different folklore traditions into one pot. More on Gaelic in a bit.

The restructured sentence is: He was a petite Hidden Person, of mixed Cherokee and Irish ancestry.

Original:

Bending the wood, she wove it into a simple circlet, chanting in a patois of Gaelic and Cherokee as she did.

I did not know that patois had negative connotations. Again, this is a case of me not looking up something I thought I knew. I thought that patois was a blending of languages and didn’t know that the term carries class distinctions. My colonialist assumptions really show because I thought that “patois” was the nice word since it was French and French is fancy. I’m currently reading An introduction to pidgin and creoles by John Holm, which I recommend for further examination of how these languages evolve. Online, I recommend Rose Lemberg’s post about Languages in contact: Pidgins and Creoles.

Now we’re back to Gaelic again… Gaelic is a linguistic family and I’ve had it explained to me that it’s like saying “She spoke European.”

I restructured it: Bending the wood, she wove it into a simple circlet, chanting a spell that blended elements of Classical Gaelic and Cherokee as she did.

Now those are all line level things and fairly easy to address. The larger things are inherent in the story itself and, to be honest, I don’t know if I’ve actually fixed it. At the end of the story it turns out that my mixed race character was upset because he thought the “pure-blooded” Nunne’hi didn’t love him because he was a “half-breed.” Yeah… You can see the problem with that when I put it in that language, right?

So I cut that as his motivation. In love with her, yes, but he’s not all in anguish over being mixed-race.

(3/8/2013 8:50 am. Edited to add: Based on some really excellent commentary, I’m reconsidering this choice. I think I may have taken a path that introduced the new problem of pretending that racism doesn’t exist. To unpack why I made the decision to cut it, the motivation was expressed in a single line of dialogue, which I could cut without obvious changes to the plot. Since the story was in short form, that line made it look like that was his sole motivation and that was what tipped it into a cliche for me. I didn’t think I had room to deal with the larger questions related to being mixed race but… I’m realizing through this conversation that a lot of this story is about having multiple facets of self and that ignoring that aspect of Cennetig is… well, stupid. I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with this slow understanding, but did want to acknowledge that it’s happening.)

I also had my white protagonist save the day, using white magic, to defeat the local magic.

Again, this is such an obvious problem that I don’t know how I missed it. I cut it.

And then there’s the problem that I wasn’t sure I could fix, and am still not sure that I did. I had only one character who was mixed-race in the story, and for plot reasons, he had to be of mixed Irish and Cherokee descent.

I’m going to tell you what I was going for, and then explain what when wrong. I had been reading a lot of slave narratives for another project and in those, the person who was mixed-race was always the “good” representative of their race because of the saving influence of their European blood. I wanted to play against that trope.

What I was unaware of, and this is my fault for not researching this more, is that there is also a trope in which the mixed-race character is driven crazy by their mingled bloodlines. What do I have in this story? A homicidal half-breed.

When put that way, it is very clear that this is problematic. It’s what is on the page and it does not matter what my intentions were. In this case, I was also running into the issue that either choice was problematic because I had only one representative of type. I’ve run into this with other projects and generally the answer is to make certain that I don’t have token characters. It becomes harder in a short story with a small cast. There was no where in the story that I could add another character. So– I took my main character and changed her heritage.

This wound up shifting everything else in the story. I think it is better and I wouldn’t have made that choice if people hadn’t called me on the problematic elements. I’m glad that the story is in a format where I can make an attempt to address the issues.

Now, here’s where you come in. It does not matter what my intentions are. Once the story is out of my hands, each individual reader’s interpretation is valid and correct.

What I want for this story is to see how it is playing for as broad a range of readers as possible before Apex republishes it. I would very much like your input on how it plays for you.

There’s a password, which is APEX, so that the story isn’t floating around in draft form.

If you have time, please take a moment to read Weaving Dreams: revised.

Edited to add: The revised version was republished at Apex.

  1. Really interesting. I did not know that about “patois,” among other things. Thanks for going into so much detail.

  2. This is really interesting. And frightening. And reassuring. Like you, I’m a white woman who wants to write things that don’t always feature only white characters. I think an whitewashed future or an Western culturally imperialist fantasy world is the wrong thing. But I’m terrified that, despite my best intentions, I’ll mess up just like this. I’m glad to see you did mess up, and that you’re dealing with it. It makes it seem like that is an option. I’ll be curious to see what others have to say.

    • I just assume that I will mess it up when I try to write something that challenges the white colonialist status quo. I have friends who I trust to pull my sheets if I do, though since most of my beta readers are white, I expect some things will get past. The thing I decided a while ago was that, one way or another, I was going to try to write something challenging, and if someone pointed something out that was Wrong, I would do my damnedest to just suck up the fact that I messed up and fix it.

      Thanks, Mary, for an example of how to try to fix the problems gracefully.

    • Possibly ironically, I’m a biracial person with a neutrois gender identity and I still feel a nearly paralyzing fear whenever I want to write about things that deviate from the things that have been normalized in culture — whether that’s race, or gender, or sexuality, or anything. One of the more vivid metaphors I’ve heard is that the culture we live in, with regards to a lot of these issues, is “an ocean of shit, and no one — not matter who they are — can swim in that ocean without getting some of the shit on them.”

      Which isn’t all that reassuring from the perspective of avoiding this kind of mess, but it can be somewhat reassuring to know that this is a universal phenomenon. Once you stop seeing mistakes as something which must be avoided *at all costs* or else *everything is over*, you can focus on “Well, this is going to happen. How do I make sure I learn from this, own up to it, and fix it?”

      Which this post is doing marvelously. Thanks, Mary! (I’ll be taking notes on it.)

  3. I have not read the story yet, in either version, so this is really a comment/question on the whole issue of writing about difficult topics such as race, gender identities, sexuality, etc. Right here, right now, there are people of mixed race who ARE confused and don’t feel like they fit on either side of the cultural divide that does exist in some areas. There are also people who are conflicted as to their gender or sexuality, and feel guilt, worry, anguish, and/or self-hatred, and these feelings play a large part in how they deal with the world. The people with these feelings are REAL, whether “cliche” or not. How does our not writing about these people do them any service? If you write about a culture where homosexuality is unacceptable, is a gay character NOT going to feel conflicted? If you write about a culture where one race is subjugated, would it be accurate to write a mixed-race character who ISN’T hung up on race? Where exactly is the line between writing a trope and writing an accurate description of a person’s reaction to being considered outside cultural norms? When is it avoiding the cliche, and when is it pointing out real conflicts that real people face, everyday, all around us, with some attempt at empathy?

    • Thanks for raising this. You’re absolutely right that these are real issues and thorny. Man, are they thorny.

      I wish there were a clearly delineated line between “This is accurate!” and “This is a cliche!” There’s a spectrum though of things that will work in one story and not in others. What I think was happening in this story was that Cennitig’s sense of not belonging became his defining characteristic and sole motivation. That flatness of motivation is part of what tipped the character into being a cliche. In a longer work, I could have dealt with that — and I do with other stories — and in some shorter works, I could have as well.

      For me, the decision to cut that from the story was a structural one, because I felt like I didn’t have space to do that character issue justice without slowing down the larger plot. In other stories, the decision to cut it would have been the wrong choice, and it might be here as well.

      Pretty much the only way to tell if something is working is to see how readers react to it. And I should say that having someone from the group in question read a story is not going to get me a Seal of Approval — I actually had a reader of mixed Cherokee and Irish descent for this one. It’s why I like to get as wide a spectrum of readers as possible and why I’m hoping that people I don’t know will comment on this revision.

      Nisi Shawl has really smart things to say about this in her essay “Transracial Writing for the Sincere.

      • Thanks for the article, Mary. My WIP contains two gay characters I didn’t realize were gay until I’d discovery-written 200+ pages. Let me tell you this was a TERRIFYING discovery–the characters were already male, already in a culture with only neolithic technology, in a world with magic, and now they’re GAY? As a heterosexual white female of relatively-urban upbringing this took these characters to a level of “Other” that I was afraid I couldn’t handle properly. It nearly brought me to the point of giving up the novel entirely for fear of writing token-gay-noble-savages, thereby offending and alienating THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE… but it’s so RIGHT for these characters, and the story as a whole, that I’ve kept writing anyway and am almost done with my first manuscript EVER.

        You might remember me from my comments on the “Love Scenes” episode of Writing Excuses, one of which said that I’ve started a dozen or more novels only to abandon them fifty pages or so in. It just so happens that one of my pet excuses over the years has been “Project X was too cliche,” so this post of yours brought out all levels of fear.

        • Ahhhh… Yeah, don’t worry about that while you’re drafting. I mean, if you spot it and can fix it before you’re finished, you’ll save yourself some time, but a lot of times the shape of a story or character isn’t clear until you are finished.

          People know that the prose in a first draft is often rough and raw, but the same is true of the structure.

          Pick up Nisi Shawl’s book “Writing the Other” for some really good exercises.

  4. And I was typing my post before @An Owomoyela’s showed up, so sorry if my comment seems to echo some of that one.

  5. I haven’t read the revised story, and probably won’t have time to do so. But I wanted to toss in a couple quick thoughts:

    1. Thank you for posting about this. It’s important stuff, and I think it’s really valuable to see someone prominent in the field recognizing mistakes and trying to correct them.

    2. I’m fascinated by the idea of replacing the online story with a revised version. I think I like that, but it’s not something that would’ve occurred to me as an editor, so I’m mulling it over. Are you planning to leave the original version online as well? Will there be an explanatory note about the replacement? I’m assuming there will be an explanation, but just in case, I wanted to note that I think it’s important not to delete evidence of mistakes that have been corrected.

    3. The following is a tiny thing that I’m now going to expend far too much verbiage on, so I’ll start by saying it’s really not a big deal and I’m sorry to be focusing entirely on it.

    I’m still a little bit bothered by your first replacement sentence (I’m also including the sentence that follows it, for context):

    >His English was grammatically perfect, as always, but the rolled R and lilt hinted at his origins. Well, that and the way he moved like a runway model straight from Milan.

    What does that “but” mean? What does “his origins” imply? Without the context of what comes later in the story, it seems to me to suggest that one might expect that someone who rolls his Rs and has a lilt to his voice wouldn’t normally speak in grammatically perfect English (whereas I think there are lots of native speakers of English whose accents include rolled Rs and a lilt); and to me, the word “origins” and especially the phrase “hinted at his origins” suggest that his origins are lower-class or otherwise from a less-privileged social group than the one the narrator is in. It reads to me a little like the kind of thing a class-conscious Regency narrator might say, with “origins” implicitly meaning something like “humble origins.”

    But then again, the fact that his name is Giancarlo and the “Milan” line may well do enough to suggest what I’m now thinking you probably intended to imply: That he’s Italian, so one might expect that he wouldn’t be completely fluent in English, but that he nonetheless *is* fluent, but that his slight accent suggests that he may not be from the differently-accented English-speaking country they’re currently in.

    Still, to me-as-reader, the attempt to convey that subtly (with words like “origins” and “like”) leaves me a little confused, and makes me think there may be Something Important going on that we’ll learn later–like that he’s an Irish Fae–and that you were trying to avoid giving the game away too early by saying what his origins were. But this may well just be me; I’ve always been much too suspicious a reader.

    Anyway, if I were editing this story, I would suggest taking another look at those two sentences, to see whether they really say what you intend them to say. (Which they might; that’s not a rhetorical question.) And I would suggest a phrase like “fluent” instead of focusing on perfection (grammatical or otherwise) per se.

    (On an even tinier side note, I don’t read “betraying” from your original version of that sentence as problematic–though if others called it out as problematic, then that’s valid. But fwiw, in this context, it seems to me that “betray” just means “to reveal unintentionally,” usually revealing a truth without meaning to, as in “betrayed his true feelings”; to me, it doesn’t have inherently negative connotations, and doesn’t have anything to do with betrayal in the other sense of the word. And the object of “betraying” was “origins,” not his way of speaking. But I guess I could imagine reading that line as indicating that his origins were something to be ashamed of and hidden, which I agree would be unfortunate.)

    4. One more tiny tiny thing: I scrolled quickly through the story to see if there was something more about Giancarlo’s origins, and this sentence caught my eye:

    >There was no telling what sort of mistakes he’d make in.

    I’m guessing there’s a word missing at the end of that?

    Okay, enough. Thanks again for the post!

    • Thanks, Jed.

      1. We learn by falling down, eh?

      2. Yes, we are posting an explanatory text with the revised version and will make sure the original stays available. In fact, I was going to post a track changes version so people could see the changes in context once we have a new “locked” version. Like you, I want to preserve a record of the mistakes, rather than pretending they didn’t happen, because I think the conversation is important. It’s how I’m learning and I hope that watching me try to get a handle on this will help other folks with their writing or their own blind spots.

      That said, I don’t know how the ebooks will be handled, but I suspect that people will probably just get the revised version in new issues, and the original in old issues for purely technical reasons. I’ll ask.

      3. You are so right. Darn it. Thank you for expending ridiculous amounts of verbiage on that. I was thinking about the words instead of the intent of that sentence. In the original, it was actually just supposed to be a way to say “hey, this guy is a hot Italian” without saying “hey, this guy is a hot Italian.” Is this better? (Full paragraph this time)

      The historian strode up the hill from their car with his gear slung over one shoulder and somehow managed to look like a runway model straight from Milan. “You could bring them with you, you know.” God. His accent just made her knees weak– Inappropriate, Eva. Focus on work.

      4. Whoops. Yes, I made a cut and apparently left a straggler.

  6. I actually was just talking about this story yesterday at work. I had come across a review that raised many of the issues you had covered. I didn’t know that patois had a negative connotation either. Which is interesting to me because I’ve had some linguistics classes and we talked about blended languages, pidgins, creoles, and patois. It definitely makes me want to go back over all those class notes.

  7. I’ll try and find time to read the story at the weekend (because the setting sounds awesome!), though I’m not sure I’m in a position to comment, being another woman of wholly European descent (at least, the parts of it I’ve been able to trace back).

    I feel your pain, though. I had a similar issue with my second novel, The Merchant of Dreams, which is set in the Mediterranean in the 16th century – a period when there was a lot of conflict between Christians and Muslims. Fortunately I thought to run the first draft past a Muslim friend. She found a number of awkward cliches as well as holes in my research, and I’m very glad she helped me to put them right. Her feedback also prompted me to dig around further in the history of the region and discover things I had overlooked that have subtly enriched the story, like the political alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire. I don’t think anyone yet has complained about either of the non-white characters, but I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop…

    Clearly, having just one “specialist” beta-reader for your potential trouble-spots isn’t guaranteed to prevent problems, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. I now have a better idea of how to approach such issues in future, for a start!

  8. I’ve been reading David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: the False Coin of Our Own Dreams. I recommend that. I don’t know that he’ll ever come to this aspect of it, but some of his discussions have touched off the idea in me that we sense there’s something fundamentally unbalanced about Western civilization, and that the same reason we reach out to non-Western cultures to find “magic” is the same reason that we’re so violent toward them when we encounter them in person.

    I’m pretty sure any Irish person would tell you that it’s not all Lucky Charms and Fae being Irish, and I know from experience, a white girl growing up on a reservation, that Native American often get a good, if somewhat bitter, laugh out of the idea that they’re Magic Indians. I read the new opening yesterday (and again this morning), and I can’t get past that aspect of it.

    It would be pointless to deny that we Westerners want to reach out to something outside of our current mores, so maybe it’s pointless to say, “Any story that uses ‘blood from another race’ as the basis for magic should be considered an automatic eyeroll.” We want to have that blood, we want to have that magic, we want to be healed from our endless heirarchies and corporate un-personhood. But being considered a halfblood, as far as I’ve ever seen and especially among the Native Americans I’ve known, is an even heavier burden than being full-blood anything.

    So – my general suggestion is this. Maybe not this story, but in the future, include burden that being non-Western is, in a Western society (or maybe non-American in an American society; other places seem to be making a transition to something else a little more easily than we are). To write a story without that burden on a fundamental level–and despite your surface-level revisions, this story seems to be without that awareness–is treating real people and real cultures as genetic containers for magic superpowers, instead of as people. Not the people in your story, but the real people: Magic Indian to the rescue! –That kind of thing.

    Making a happy pretend world where there is no racism is, in itself, kind of racist, like having scolarly men write essays about how patriarchy has been cured, no need for feminism, yay we’re glad that’s over!

    • May I ask you to point out more specifically what, in the opening, is striking you as “magic Indian?” Because THAT I do not want and am trying to figure out what I did to introduce it.

      Making a happy pretend world where there is no racism is, in itself, kind of racist, like having scolarly men write essays about how patriarchy has been cured, no need for feminism, yay we’re glad that’s over!

      Damnit it. You’re right.

  9. “we’re back to Gaelic again… Gaelic is a linguistic family”.
    But it’s also the transliteration of Gaeilge, the word in (Irish) Gaelic for the language.

    In Ireland, I was always asked if I spoke Gaelic, if I was studying Gaelic, etc. By which they specifically meant the local language. I lived in the Gaeltacht, where many of my neighbors spoke Gaelic at home. And that’s what they called it, rarely “Irish” or “Irish Gaelic”.

    So, I guess it’s all about context?

    • Huh. I studied abroad in Ireland (2004) and was told exactly the opposite by my adviser, a native Dubliner; that “Gaelic” was used so often as a derogatory term for everything Irish by Brits that I should call the language “Irish” in order not to offend anyone. I was told it would be like an English-speaking American going up to a Hispanic person and shouting “You speaky Ingles? I no speaky Espanolo.”

        • I was told by an Irish-born professor of Irish Studies (in Canada) some years back that “Gaelic” was correct and “Erse” was an English error. There seem to be many opinions!

          The Celtic language spoken by some Scots is also referred to when speaking English as “Gaelic” or “Scots Gaelic.” It has no other name in English that I’m aware of, and its name for itself is basically that too. “Scots” on its own generally refers to one of the various dialects of English used in Scotland.

  10. Although I had issues with some of the specifics in the original story (the use of patois, etc), I am still concerned about the general concept. When I was growing up I had a keen desire to find the European equivalents to Mexican creatures of folklore. I read a lot of Anglo stuff and I was trying to find the “Mexican” fairies. It was a frustrating affair. Eventually I figured the basic problem: there was no equivalent. However, because I was operating under the idea that European was “better” or the “default,” I kept looking for local folklore to express itself in the same way as non-local folklore. I was looking for structures, characters and story-telling frames that were NOT there and would never be there. Once I was able to see that, I was able to escape the trap I had set myself. I think that’s what bugs me at a conceptual level. This idea of blending the cultures and finding the native equivalent of the fairy just…it just reminds me of me as a teenager.
    I also think “blending” the culture and having them co-exist happily gets around a LOT of post-colonialist issues and makes my skin itch.

  11. I’m finding this very interesting to follow. I haven’t read WD or the revision as yet, but wanted to make one small comment. Regarding the sentance you revised using the word “petite”: as far as I know, this word is generally used when talking about a female rather than a male. To quote a random bit of the internet, “the word does have lingering feminine associations”. As I don’t think this was what you had in mind, I just thought I’d comment. Incidentally, as an alternative to “diminutive” or “petite” there is always the phrase, “slight of build” although I’m not sure how you would work that into your sentance!

  12. I haven’t read the story either, but got a notice about the revisions, and have read about your journey with interest. I’m a woman of color, somewhat sensitive to issues of race, and also a great reader. I would echo Jed’s comment that “betrayed” is not necessarily pejorative. Writers of romance often use it to describe something not immediately obvious, but delightful if/when discovered (I’m not implying that this is what you meant as well). I have a similar reaction to the word “diminutive.” I think of it as an endearing, or at worst neutral, term for someone small, like me. I also have to wonder whether “half-breed” was the character’s or the narrator’s identifying term. This makes a difference to me in this discussion.

    I admire your courage, not only with regard to the attempt you, as a member of the majority, make in your writing to challenge these tropes. I also can’t imagine how exhausting it is to have to continually fight your own voice in order to “make things right.” I’m personally grateful to writers who feel as you do, and who respond positively to constructive feedback regarding issues of otherness. However, I think you (and we) will want to consider that folks who live in the various worlds of the other are individuals with individual concerns and opinions, and that not all of these specific concerns are necessarily shared by all of us in the non-majority. I fear that the magnifying glass we hold to our words can “betray” (in the pejorative sense) our voices, if held too close and for too long.