Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Identity Politics

I am wondering about identity politics at the moment, thinking about suggesting a panel for Wiscon. I have very mixed feelings. I can see good things coming out of identity politics, but I also wonder if -- overall -- they represent a retreat from the movements of the 1960s.

At the moment I have feelings and dim intuitions, not a clear analysis. But I have been thinking of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, a movement of black rank and file auto workers in the 1960s. At one point, they went to Johnny Watson, who was the editor of the Wayne State student newspaper and said, "We need a better analysis. Tell us about Marx." Watson called up Marty Glaberman, a former auto worker who was a follower of C.L.R. James and said, "I need to know about Marx right now." Point being, the 60s movements came from the bottom up, and they were not academic. Even the student anti-war movement did not use academic language. "Hell no, we won't go."

There was a transitional period in the late 60s and early 70s, when something like identity politics appeared: Black Power, the American Indian Movement, Second Wave Feminism. Again, none of this was based in academia. My memory is, all of it was from the ground up.

I need Barbara Jensen here, since she has written about class differences in how language is used. I come from a middle- class, academic background, though I never fit into academia. (Neither did my father, the college professor.) When I started working office jobs in Detroit, I could not communicate with my fellow workers, though we were all native speakers of English. Finally, I was able to understand them. At the same time, my ability to understand middle-class, academic people decreased.

A popular movement requires clear language.

There have been popular movements recently. I think Occupy counts as one, though the earlier stages were planned by anarchists. It spread very quickly, without planning. The Ferguson demonstrations are another example. In both cases, the government responded with force. You can tell how much of a threat you are to the status quo by how many armored cops and tank-like vehicles show up.

To give an example of clarity -- Occupy talking about the 1% and 99%, which has gone into general usage. I'd say the lifted hands in Ferguson is another example of a clear and effective symbol.

I'm not sure 'academic' is the right word for what bothers me. I had trouble with academia myself, but that was some kind of odd quirk. Many of my best friends, the people I like best, are college profs. I understand the need for a technical language, though I think there's a strong argument for writing in the most accessible way possible. I'm not sure I can articulate what I think is wrong with identity politics or with the language that I find bothersome. When I examine my responses, I can see how they can be wrong. (To give an example, broad-based political movements can ignore the issues of specific groups. The left always ignored women's issues, until the Second Wave of Feminism came along. So this is an argument for identity politics. And race is key to understanding the US.) But I am still left with a nagging sense of discomfort, and a lot of it has to do with language.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ordering Hidden Folk

This is where to order my new book. 20% off for preorders. A heck of a deal.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


On the weather front, winter came suddenly in early November: a snow storm and low temps. The last leaves came off the trees. Today is gray and pretty cold. Right now it's 13 above F, with a wind chill of 2 above. This is the kind of weather you have to dress for. It's not a bitter cold. That happens below zero. But I have pulled my Ugg boots out of storage, also my Norwegian sweater. The red melton wool parka has not been deployed yet.

New Book

This is collection of stories based on Icelandic literature and folklore, which is due out this month.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

November Birdwatching

A crisp, sunny day with a clear blue sky. The leaves are almost all gone from the trees. Maybe I can convince Patrick to drive down to Alma, Wisconsin this weekend to see if the migrating swans are there. There are a lot of oaks on the river bluffs, and they hold their leaves.

I checked the Alma swan watch website. Turns out they get far fewer swans than they used to in Alma. 5-20 now, instead of thousands. Still, it might be worth a look. Or a drive to Crex Meadows in Wisconsin. 21,000 sandhill cranes there as of November 4. Their running count also lists a few trumpeter swans and two bald eagles for November.

The swans in Alma are the smaller tundra swans. Trumpeters are impressive.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Interview with George R.R. Martin

From an interview in the Wall Street Journal:
Your new book shows us countries in your fantasy world influenced by Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. In general, though, fantasy literature isn’t very diverse. Pretty much all the main characters in the TV version of “Game of Thrones” are white. Why is fantasy so monocultural?

It’s so monocultural because it’s mostly been written by white men. I’m a 66-year-old white man…. I do see evidence that that’s changing. If you look at the world science-fiction award, the Hugo, which is given every year, and the John W. Campbell award, which is an award that’s given every year at the world S.F. convention, more and more of them [award-winners] have been writers of different ethnic backgrounds, more women, women of color, women from other countries, of Indian descent, black writers like N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor, Asian writers like Ken Liu …. If these books sell, publishers will publish more of them…. If they don’t succeed, though, and the books by the old white guys continue to succeed, then you’ll get more books by old white guys.
I mentioned the multicultural fantasy I wrote in the 1980s in a previous post. It's the one I've been proofing. One can write about people who are not identical to oneself. However, it's more stressful, especially if the people still exist. One is operating on someone else's turf.

The ultimate answer is to have more writers who are people of color, a term I really dislike. It sounds so clunky. More nonwhite writers. More writers from different cultures and different parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


It has been a beautiful autumn. Now it's ending. The temps have fallen from the 70s to the high 40s. The trees in the nearby park have mostly lost their leaves, though there are still a few with bright yellow foliage. There is one red tree, a maple, of course; and one tree covered with lovely, rich brown foliage. It's an oak, of course.

I wrote this post last year in November:
This time of year I praise the oaks
That keep their leaves when other trees are bare --
Red, brown, orange, yellow-brown,
Like banners in the cold fall air,

Flaunting their persistence. They won’t give in,
Though snow flies in winter’s icy gust.
Their roots wait deep in the frozen ground
For spring to come, as come it must
A clunky little poem, but I like it, because I like oaks.

Writing the Other, Writing Oneself

I just suggested a panel for next year's Wiscon:
Writing the Other, Writing Oneself.

This is yet another cultural appropriation panel. I want to discuss the issue from the point of view of writers. Can one write about other cultures? How can it be done respectfully? Maybe it would be better and safer to simply not write about people different from oneself, if one is a member of the dominant culture. But this is constraining. One is denying oneself so much. There is also the question of minority members writing about dominant culture. Are there any problems in doing this? It's not cultural appropriation, according to the academic definitions, but it is writing outside one's experience. Is one true to oneself when doing this?
I didn't include another obvious topic: why does one write about the other?

When I was going over my third novel, I realized how much there was about nonwhite cultures: a black magical kingdom based very loosely on West African kingdoms and a group of Anasazi who escape the great drought into another world -- and then are preyed on by dragons. I wanted to write a fantasy that was not the typical faux Tolkien, faux medieval Europe mishmash. This was back in the 1980s. I wrote the novel more or less in a vacuum. No one was talking about cultural appropriation. As far as I remember, no one was complaining that the fantasy worlds were too white. (I'm sure someone was complaining. But not around me.) Now I want to think about the topic of using other cultures.

Having said the above, I now wish I had written more about the black kingdom and Father Lucien Dia, a Catholic priest from Senegal who discovers that he actually a magical creature from another world. And I wish I had done more research.

Monday, October 27, 2014


This is an essay in The Guardian on transrealism, a term made up by Rudy Rucker. It appears to describe a mash up of realism and SFF.

Here is my comment from facebook:
Realistic fiction into which intrudes something weird is a good description of much 1950s SF. Writers like Kornbluth, Tenn and Sturgeon could write painfully realistic slice of life stories with something truly strange in the middle. I remember the story about the property agent who rents the 13th floor of his building -- which floor does not exist, except it does. Sort of.

As the comments in The Guardian point out, we already have the term Slipstream. We also have Interstitial, a term I hate, because I can neither spell nor pronounce it.

I am slowly, grudgingly coming to the realization that SFF is probably not adequate as a term, because the boundaries around SFF are becoming increasingly fuzzy. Maybe Fantastika works.
Or maybe we should stick to SFF and realize that it is imperfect. Many terms are imperfect.