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.
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.
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.
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.