Flight Papers

feminism and creativity, art, madness, and play

“We are all white men between the ages of 18 and 35.”

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Jane Irwin recently considered ending Clockwork Game, a comic that follows the exploits of the mechanical Turk and its inventor. Here’s what I wrote to her:

Thank you.

Thank you for creating art that I, for one, find lovely and fascinating. Thank you for thinking about how your work fits into a social context. And thank you (so much) for being courageous enough to recognize the ways in which you weren’t telling the story you wanted to, and make what had to be a hard decision.

It makes me think even more highly of you as an artist and an ally.

But the reality is that I cannot create and analyze Clockwork Game at the same time: they’re two different processes. I have to stop what I’m doing, do some more reading, and decide then if this is something that I can pick back up, or if it’s best left behind.

This is a lot to ask, but I think it would be really valuable if you exposed this process in some way. I know that analysis of your own work in particular can be really intimate, but I think this kind of dialogue can be a hopeful result of the otherwise basically shitty Great White Fail.

“The Great White Fail” is my term for the most recent explosion of SF/F fandom, in which readers of color critiqued problematic subtext in some works by white authors, and those authors responded by utterly freaking the fuck out. It’s more commonly known as RaceFail ‘09, but I didn’t realize how embedded that title was when I commented—goodness, there should be t-shirts.

Jane has since decided to post the rest of chapter one, along with notes about not just the geeky chess / mechanical trivia, but also notes on historical context that’s missing from the text—like, say, the fact that the Austrian empire was at war with the Ottoman empire at the time, which undoubtedly influenced Kempelen’s decision to dress the automaton as he did. I have to say, when I came across the comic a few months ago, I wasn’t abjectly shocked by its racism—nor, in fact, did I think of the text as problematic. Which makes me even more grateful for Jane’s willingness to come out and critique her own work, not just as an ally, but as an author interested in telling brilliant stories.

After our Dogs game on Tuesday, Ann and I talked about racism in the game. Obviously, the game’s text (at least, the setting material therein) is written from the stance of someone within the Faith, with all the prejudices that implies. In a divergence from Mormonism of the time, the Faith is not officially racist. But neither are they particularly interested in or aware of the people who they, y’know, took the land from. The native tribes are referred to, collectively, as “Mountain People,” with no particular distinction beyond that. That bit might actually be okay, as the book’s setting information is quite coarse, overall.

Where it gets to be a problem is that in a game which is so centered on society and family and, well, sin, there’s very little information about the Mountain Peoples’ societal and family structure, nor their beliefs, not even just a statement on how those beliefs relate to the Faith. Or even the shape of their names, which when you’re spinning characters up really fast, can definitely be a problem.

And, of course, Ann and K are both playing native people, and at various points in the game, I’ve felt distinctly uncomfortable manufacturing bits of their characters’ culture from what amounts to a mishmash of probably-inaccurate stories and stereotypes.

And all of this makes me realize: this is hard. A while ago, on a pretty unconnected topic, Brand Robbins commented,

When you play a historical game where you mostly just make it up as you go, or oracle it, or simple sentence it, then what you get is a pastiche of history, a shallow collection of everyone’s highschool history tropes. That they tend to be full of imperialistic, colonial, racist bullshit is just an added layer of not-fun.

But wait, I thought, surely if you’re aware of that potential, you can work against it? And yes, I think we’ve avoided, in our play, the most obviously problematic ways of dealing with indigenous people in fiction—substantially because the ancestry and gender of the characters marks our narrative as transgressive. But I can’t promise we’ve never re-hashed a racist trope, or a problematic story, because those things? They’re under our skin. However much we might wish them not to be.

6 Responses to ““We are all white men between the ages of 18 and 35.””

  1. Nicholas Novitski Says:

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    Could there be an anti-racist oracle? Could games that introduce particular ethnicities give a brief list of common imperialistic colonial racist bullshit tendencies that players could recognize and thus avoid falling into?

  2. violet Says:

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    Maybe! And, also, maybe. I think to actually answer that, I at least will have to figure out this (from a comment I made here):

    On the one hand, I don’t fundamentally feel like we own our stories, particularly not in a way that makes it impossible for people from other cultural backgrounds to speak them.

    On the other hand, every time I hear about Slumdog Millionaire, I want to throw something at Danny Boyle.

    Because… okay, let’s accept that there’s some low-hanging fruit, as it were. That there are some clearly racist tropes, some really problematic stories that white people keep telling and telling and telling, and we can understand how to break those down or at least identify them, and can maybe even encode how to do so in oracular form.

    That tells you what not to say. Or, at best, what to speak against. And I think, in that regard, our Dogs game has been pretty successful. We’re (1) generally aware of racist tropes about indigenous people, and (2) are able to avoid and deconstruct those racist stories by having Mountain Folk who are actual characters with actual motivations in a somewhat foreign context (that is, the context of the Faith).

    But where we’re having trouble is in figuring out where to draw this other line—how much of Mountain Folk culture do we get to make up, how much do we get to base on our impression of actual indigenous cultures, stories, and societies, and where are the boundaries between reverence, inspiration, and appropriation?

    That’s hard. I mean, I’m thrilled to pieces that Neil Gaiman is thinking of doing a telling of the Ramayana—other Indians aren’t. Who’s wrong? Or is that just really the wrong way to look at it?

  3. belledame222 Says:

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    “The Great White Fail” does seem a more accurate name, yes.

  4. belledame222 Says:

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    I didn’t realize that he was planning that, wrt Ramayana. I did always like “Anansi Boys,” but I wonder if that would be less dodgy in terms of possible appropriation because the main story is about original characters, and the use of the Anansi stories seemed in keeping with what he was doing with “American Gods,” i.e. I didn’t see it as appropriative, but then I wouldn’t be the best judge of that. Hadn’t really kept up with what the fanbase thinks, esp. obvious black fen of Caribbean descent. I still kind of wish it’d be made into a movie.

  5. belledame222 Says:

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    I mean, I guess what I’m saying is overall I saw AB as a good example of a white author centering non-white/European characters and/or myth in a three-dimensional, non-appropriative way, but again, I’m not really the authority on that. Ramayana I could probably understand more trepdiations over simply because–well, it depends how “authoritative” it is, I guess? I mean I think something like Zelazny’s “Lord of Light” is an interesting way of making use of Hindu and Buddhist myth for something new (I don’t remember enough of the rest of the details to say more than that about how “whitewashed” it might’ve been; seem to remember there was a sort of “colorblind” approach to how he described the characters within).

    but for “Ramayana,” I wonder if people are thinking more along the lines of, whatsis, Peter Brook doing Mahabrata:


  6. violet Says:

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    I like Anansi Boys and American Gods, too, for what that’s worth. But then, I would feel that way—Neil Gaiman’s relationship with stories and storytelling has informed my own in substantial ways. Which means, amongst other things, that I don’t feel like we own our stories.

    I feel like we have relationships with them.

    And obviously, that means that when other people—particularly people who have hurt us, taken our bodies and land and culture—when other people take our stories and warp them, make them theirs and not ours, it hurts us. We name it, rightly, appropriation. And we call it a tool of colonization, because whether you take our stories or our families is, you have still taken something deeply important.

    I think it is possible for white authors to tell, say, the Ramayana. I think it’s possible for men to write women’s stories. I think it’s possible for cis women to tell trans women’s stories. But I think they first have to love both the stories and the people. They need to know them. And the stories, even and especially in a white storyteller’s mouth, need to writhe and dance and move towards liberation as we would expect and hope them to.

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