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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-09-27 06:19
Subject: [process] Writing hard things
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Mood:challenged
Music:somebody running a small gas engine outside
Tags:personal, process, stories, writing
Still working over "America, Such as She Is." Having strong feelings about this story, as are my first readers for the most part. There have been some vigorous discussions about word choices, structure and narrative, as well as the story's content. Two issues have surfaced which make me uncomfortable. This suggests I should blog them.

One, there are exactly two female characters in this story. One is a whore, literally, the other is a madonna-turned-whore under about one thin layer of symbolism. (For what it's worth, one of these women is a protagonist — neither is wallpaper.) Several of my readers have commented negatively on this. I was well aware of this as an issue even before my readers spoke up. My dilemma is that the story is set in war zones in the WWII era. Not a lot of women carried weapons, or were particularly empowered in any way, in the front lines of that conflict. These women don't have the social space to be Rosie the Riveter or Eleanor Roosevelt. What they are doing is surviving in harsh environments controlled by brutal men with plentiful weapons. One very classic mode for this is the camp follower, which is a slightly more polite word for whore. There aren't a lot of other classic modes for this.

While the lack of constructive female role models is historically reasonable (yes, I know there are exceptions, from Hanna Reitsch to Lyudmila M. Pavlichenko, but what percentage of American WWII front line veterans were female?), it makes a modern reader uncomfortable. It feels like I'm writing more "average white guy" fiction where the women are cardboard. I don't think my women in this story are cardboard, but they map so readily to offensive stereotypes that it's easy to see them that way.

Likewise, there is a substantial strain of anti-Semitism in this story. While no one has complained about it, this bothers me, and I wrote it. On the other hand, I'm writing about Nazis. Literally. Again, this is important to the historical and dramatic territory of the story, but I've rather squicked myself out, at a social and cultural level.

In other words, my modern progressive sensibilities are offended by my story about a time and place where male dominance and institutionalized oppression of many forms were the order of the day. If I don't like it, I guess I can write about a kinder, gentler, era. Another one of those challenges of being a writer.

How do you handle difficult eras or difficult material? That's where some of the most interesting stuff happens, but it's also very easy to be placed in an impossible position by people critical of the material. We live in a world where people want to censor Mark Twain for having a character named Nigger Jim, after all.




ETA: It occurs to me on re-reading this post that what I'm describing is a broad case of the use/mention distinction. I'm mulling that now.
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User: dirkcjelli
Date: 2007-09-27 13:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Could some of this be addressed to your satisfaction in an author's forward, or afterward?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes indeed. If I have the opportunity to address it thusly, I most certainly will. And I'm not wiggling out from behind my story, either. Just expressing my concerns. This ain't an easy business, and I make a sincere effort to share my experiences both good and bad.
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Nayad Monroe
User: nayad
Date: 2007-09-27 13:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you have to be truthful about what the era was like. It makes people uncomfortable for good reason, but there's nothing to be gained by pretending things were different than they were.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-09-28 02:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree with this. Our past eras are not necessarily pretty (try reading some non-glamed up pioneer stories).

Too easy to whitewash the past. Better to show it for what it was.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 14:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not having read the story, you're lacking some context here. (My fault for bringing it up this way, not yours, obviously.) This story is mostly about civilians in war zones. In fact, it borders on the post-apocalyptic. There aren't any nurses or ambulances or spies or resisters or Red Cross workers in this story, there isn't any place for them -- it would be a very different story if there were active infrastructure of either the military or civilian variety -- but your comment is exactly the reading I'm concerned about.
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User: ex_truepenn
Date: 2007-09-27 14:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:cats: problem
I think, maybe, that what you want to do is make it clear that the problem--of limited roles for women, of anti-Semitism--is a problem with the world, not with the story. I.e., it's not that you don't know any better, it's that, hello, you're not writing about a utopia. And we have to be able to do that, otherwise we're stuck only writing utopias.

I think the way I go about it--which I've never tried to articulate before--is to remember that the attitudes the characters and their society have are not true and to find ways to show that.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 14:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think I have tried to make it clear that the problem is with the world. Which is why people haven't commented on the anti-Semitism at least. That cultural context seems to make sense.

What I do have in one narrative line is a pair of front line vets travelling across a radioactive no man's land -- not a lot of people there of any gender, and I can't really justify a female character who was a front line vet at Corregidor and then survived a Japanese work camp, nor can I justify a female character who attended M.I.T. in the late 1930s, then fought in North Africa, then did time as a German industrial slave. (And yes, I know there were female nurses and support staff in both theatres, but their biographies would be very different.)

What I have in the other narrative line is a very tiny Portuguese colonial port town in the Malay archipelago, currently occupied by the Japanese. Everyone has fled except a few cafe owners and the town's sole 'comfort woman'. Again, a very difficult place to have an empowered female character. In fact, the whore is rather empowered. She's still a whore, though. (And that's rather relevant to the plot, not just a gratuitous detail.)

See jennawaterford's comment above -- she seems to take offense at the way I've set the story, but I can't reach back in time and make things different for women there. I mean, I can, I'm the writer, but then I'm writing a very different story.

I'm concerned about people looking at my fictional rendering of historical experience through a modern lens.
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Leela
User: leela_cat
Date: 2007-09-27 14:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't have a problem with one woman being a whore. Having both characters be whores and not having a woman who is anything else is problematic to me. Yes, it's difficult to make them anything else, but not impossible.

Because it was war time and so many of the men were gone, many of the women did slip into male roles. For example, in the area where my family lived in England, most of the shops were run by women because their husbands/fathers/brothers/whoever were away fighting. So it would be reasonable for one of the women to be managing a cafe or the local food store.

You could make one of the characters a seamstress or a washerwoman or a housekeeper (perhaps where the man has sent his family away for safety but kept the servants because he needs them).

And in some of those towns, the most empowered woman was the local "witch" or midwife.

People are going to look at your fictional rendering of historical experience through a modern lens. For the most part, that's because they don't have the indepth knowledge needed to create another lens.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And that's precisely what I've tried to do -- she does have dreams, goals, takes action, and is in many ways the most significant person in her community. Everyone, even the Japanese occupation commander, defers to her in some degree.

In the end, the story will have to speak for itself.
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User: beth_bernobich
Date: 2007-09-27 14:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I read the story and what bothered me the most is that there are numerous male characters, major and minor and walk-ons, and only two women, and neither woman even gets a name.

My first reaction afterward was to re-read "The Women Men Don't See."
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 14:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, Cicero's mother is named Arnetta, and is referred to as such. I also think I'm going to move some of Mackie's criticism of the wandering soldier's plan into her mouth, if I can figure out how to do it.

You'll also note the wandering soldier doesn't get a name, nor does the cafe owner. (Well, he does by implication because his cafe has a name, but it's never used to apply to him.) Did it bother you that the men were nameless?

(The only viewpoint character who does get a name is Ichiro.)
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Rose Fox
User: rosefox
Date: 2007-09-27 16:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think my women in this story are cardboard, but they map so readily to offensive stereotypes that it's easy to see them that way.

So fix it. Honestly, the women in the stories of yours that I've read are often cardboard. I don't think there's any harm in pushing yourself harder to make them more interesting. The stereotypes may make your job harder, but don't fall into the trap of thinking that they make your job impossible. That's a cop-out.
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User: michaeljasper
Date: 2007-09-27 16:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just throwing my two cents in here -- I think at first I initially disliked the fact that she was a whore, but I don't think that can be avoided, due to the setting and time. What's bothering me is that she's passive. She doesn't make a move to get out of there before it's too late. Maybe that's the point.

(Part of me kept thinking she was somehow the contact for your other POV character who was up in Oregon...)

As for the anti-Semitism, that too seems to be a part of the times, especially in light of how the war ended (in your version). The fate of Jewish people in your story was quietly horrific -- you never really had to come out and state it, which I thought was effectively done.
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mallory_blog: pic#46762286
User: mallory_blog
Date: 2007-09-27 16:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:pic#46762286
If you want to write about whores - talk to some. You might be surprised by how the stereotypes seldom fit the realities. There are sex-positive groups in the San Francisco area - here are a few helpful links:

http://dailybruin.com/archives/id/31867/
http://books.google.com/books?id=e9IDEEvfIVMC&pg=PA159&lpg=PA159&dq=sex+positive+and+san+francisco&source=web&ots=My4nGYxkwZ&sig=YMHOntgYNJs49hTv1GH4_Ej7j1s
http://www.carolqueen.com/pages/center1.htm

Empowerment is often perspective - if you look at the process externally then prostitution may seem very disempowered but from the inside it is often a woman running her own business and making her own choices which is often MORE empowered than being married. Food for thought.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-09-27 16:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actualy, she is pretty empowered as a character. Perhaps the most empowered character in the story, in fact.
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jimvanpelt
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2007-09-27 16:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hi, Jay. I'm eager to see the story as you wrote it, concerns and all.
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martyn44
User: martyn44
Date: 2007-09-27 22:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fighting women? There were lots in all the Nazi resistance movements, especially the Balkan ones (which means that some were Nazi sympathisers)

Uncomfortable with anti-Semitism (which is only right) As you say, you're talking Nazis. Still uncomfortable? Watch the History Channel. It was there, in high places. Hell, I recall reports of the Kennedy/Nixon campaign assuring us Brits that Kennedy couldn't possibly win because he was a Catholic. Guess they thought it meant something to us. Probably to keep us from remembering Joe Kennedy was a Nazi sympathiser and an anti-Semite.

Tell the truth, the truth as it applies to your story, and you'll tell the truth about the world, and that's your job.
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Twilight: History
User: twilight2000
Date: 2007-09-28 14:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:History
I'm concerned about people looking at my fictional rendering of historical experience through a modern lens.
and
People are going to look at your fictional rendering of historical experience through a modern lens. For the most part, that's because they don't have the indepth knowledge needed to create another lens.

And both of them are right -- historical contextual understanding of behaviour is something I've taught in every history class I've taught -- and the *amazed* look on the faces of the teens when I try to explain it at the beginning of the semester is something one can only imagine if you've not seen it.

Getting folks to understand the world "as it was" -- is damn near impossible. A *BRILLLIANTLY* in-the-round staging of "Cabaret" did that in the late '70's -- where everyone found themselves singing The Stag in the Meadow* before they realized what they were singing, what it's significance was or who was leading this rousing chorus. But it took that level of total immersion for folks to *get* it.

I'm afraid every historically based novel has that issue. Add to that the fact that most folks either innately or have been conditioned to prefer a story with "heroic" characters -- the ones who stand above the "norm of the day" -- and you've a double edged sword.

I'm very keen to read this piece. It sounds profoundly uncomfortable and fascinating all at once.

________________
* Nazi song lead during a wedding sing -- not clearly that at all until the last round, if done well. Studio 54 did something similar in 2003:
But it was the underlying message that you carried out of the theatre with you. This is most memorable at the Schultz/Schneider wedding where Fraulein Kost breaks into a Nazi song and all the citizens of Berlin join in. The underlying theme is that all were taken in by Nazism and all participated.

"The sun in the meadow is summery warm . . . the stag in the forest runs free . . . but gather together to greet the storm . . . tomorrow belongs to me . . ."
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