Marginalization, speculative fiction, and writing for Long Hidden, part I: the why

Writing and submitting a story for Long Hidden has changed the way I approach speculative fiction. Probably not enough, but it’s a start.

If you’re not familiar with Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, click on over and see what it’s all about. One of the purposes of the anthology edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, published by Crossed Genres, is to put marginalized people at the centre of the story, with the added context of real-world history blended with speculative elements.

A big part of the reason I wanted to submit a piece to Long Hidden was I wasn’t sure I could do it.

I’m a straight, white, middle-class cisgender male living in Canada. What the hell do I know about being marginalized?

I haven’t experienced a lot of it myself, and I’m sure I’m still ignorant of ways in which I’m privileged, but I can still see when others are being put down, oppressed, or abused. I am starting to become aware of how I do it to people without thinking.

Among the submission guidelines for Long Hidden were recommendations on handling marginalization and intersectionality. Specifically, that a character who is marginalized in one way may not be in another, and that might affect how they are seen or treated by others.

I had already been trying to write about the way First Nations people in Canada have been affected by the government’s systemic oppression in the form of residential schools, and how this has been abetted by racism and dehumanization.  I had tried to incorporate aspects of this history in stories with elements of horror or dark fantasy, two of which were published in 2013 (“Sin A Squay” and “No More Good Indian”).

Sadly, the more I learned about Canada’s residential school system, which lasted for more than a century, the more I realized I had barely touched on the most horrific aspects of it. And, at the same time, to write about this I felt I ran the risk of merely exploiting the suffering that generations of children and their families experienced.

So when I began to work on a story for Long Hidden, I wanted to tread carefully and try to write something more nuanced and (possibly) complex, while still putting the marginalized character at the heart of the story.

The guidelines were useful limitations and forced me to do a lot more research. One limitation was the setting: all stories submitted to the anthology had to be set between 1400 and 1920 C.E. Since I wanted to link this story to the two mentioned above, it became clear I couldn’t use the same characters — the main character in both of those was only born in 1918.

So I decided to write a story about that character’s grandfather, and put him in the middle of the Winnipeg General Strike, with the goal of finding his children, who had been in a residential school. To add to things, I made him a First World War veteran. As an Anishinaabe man at that time, this would also complicate things, given the power Anglo-Canadians wielded in society. And the mood in Winnipeg as the strike wore on got very ugly, and came hard on the heels of the war’s end and outbreaks of both the flu and tuberculosis.

After a lot of research and multiple drafts, I submitted “A Deeper Echo.”

But as to the why: this is a tougher question to answer. I am not attempting to position my story as something that has been “untold” or that Anishinaabe people or those of other First Nations are aware of. But in Canada there seems to be a great reluctance on the part of white society to acknowledge the huge part First Nations people have played in our shared history AND the huge role they have today. I am not attempting to categorize that role since it’s not monolithic, any more than white or European-descended Canadians are monolithic in their views.

But — in the coverage of anything to do with First Nations, there is often a tone of “it’s all in the past” or “get over it,” as if a long and ongoing genocide is something people “get over.” In online comments at the newspaper where I work, I’ve noticed that a large number of comments (not necessarily a large number of individual commenters) espouse the view that injustices against First Nations people are no big deal, or they are to blame for their own problems, or that they are lazy. Aside from the flat-out racism, what burns me up is that this is not just ignorant but cruel.

So, I feel I have certain choices when I write fiction. I can continue, as I did for many years, only writing about people like me — straight, white, middle-class cisgender males — or I can do something different. The two stories mentioned above that were published last year were deliberate attempts on my part to write stories that would pass the Bechdel Test, which just about all my previous short fiction would  fail. Long Hidden pushed me to do something more.

My attempting to write about the experiences of an Anishinaabe man returning from the carnage of the First World War to finally get his children back is not my way of reframing anyone else’s history for them. It’s a way, I hope, of my no longer remaining silent, no longer ignoring people like the main character, Thomas, and the systemic barriers — and unique victories — he might experience.

I felt that to continue to ignore those (and many other) realities in my fiction was the same as silencing those voices. That’s not a tradition I want to be any part of.

Others will give voice to characters like these, and do it better than I can. (In fact, just read all the other stories in Long Hidden.) But as I learn more and try to do better, I’ve decided, going forward, to apply the submission guidelines for Long Hidden to every new story I write. (I won’t necessarily stick to the restriction on setting.) I accept that I’m going to screw things up and get it wrong. But I still think it’s important. Writers, look at those guidelines. Consider how they might change your story for the better.

I’d love a speculative fiction literature where the norm is for it to break things wide open in the way that Rose and Daniel have encouraged writers to do — and when you read the stories in Long Hidden, I think you will too.

 

For a wide-ranging discussion with the editors of Long Hidden and the reasons behind the anthology, listen to the excellent podcast interview at Black Girl Nerds.

UPDATE: If you haven’t already, see what Long Hidden authors Kima Jones (“Nine”) and Sunny Moraine (“Across the Seam”) have to say about the stories behind their stories. Kima’s piece is here, and Sunny’s is here.

UPDATE 2: More Long Hidden authors are blogging and posting about their stories, and you can find the links to them beside each title here.

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11 thoughts on “Marginalization, speculative fiction, and writing for Long Hidden, part I: the why

    • Wow — listening to what Chimamanda Adichie has to say about the British and American books she grew up with in Nigeria completely excluding anyone like her, and her discovery of Nigerian books that helped her get out of the “single story” that books could only be about foreign kids, is amazing, but no less so is her own changing perception of Fili (don’t know the spelling), the boy who was a domestic servant. That her “single story” about him was that he was poor, until she got to see him at home with his family.
      This is something that Daniel highlighted in my story as I worked with him on edits. Without realizing it, I had left some things vague enough that part of it could fall into the “magical Indian” trope. When he pointed this out and suggested ways we could fix it, I was happy to make the changes. It had certainly not been my intent with this story (or the others I had been working on) to fall into this cliché and I was dumbstruck that in the earlier version of the story it could be read that way — but there it was.
      The other thing I worry about, as I write about these characters (Thomas, his granddaughter Marion, and others) is portraying the Anishinaabeg or First Nations people in general as victims. And yet it’s hard to write about residential schools, or treaties, or systemic racism in Canada, without that creeping in. Some of the other recommendations in the submission guidelines for Long Hidden was to show “Integration of friendships, family relationships, and community into the story” and to “mak[e] us laugh, think, cheer, and weep.” I had to rewrite many parts even before submitting because I had left out any attempt at humour, and I realized, well, the main character, Thomas, would likely not have survived what he went through in the war without some sense of humour, or an ability to connect with family and friends. It added a new tone to the story and changed how I wrote it.
      Adichie’s point about the “single story” is well taken — makes me think about how many times I have accepted a single narrative about a person or a group of people without considering it. Biases start clinging to your perception, reinforcing that one view.
      Thanks for sharing that link to her talk.

      • Absolutely, you’re welcome! I thought it was a great talk.

        I’ve found myself evaluating things I write, too, in particular with regards to characters who are gay or bisexual. I am related to or friends with or used to live with so many people who are gay or bisexual that I feel like I’ve observed their experiences on a better-than-casual level over the last thirty or so years. However, I still second-guess myself and my writing when I write a character coming from that type of experience, always worrying whether I’m being authentic or humanizing enough, always worrying whether I’m falling into cliché without meaning to.

        Maybe I don’t worry enough.

        One character I wrote, a teenage girl who is discovered to be a lesbian when she falls into a relationship with another girl, experiences tremendous anger and disconnection among her sisters (who are heterosexual) and the societal expectations they fulfill and wonder why she doesn’t, until she finds this new relationship. On the one hand, is that a cliché, even though it’s not a central part of the main storyline of the novel? Or is that an authentic experience conveyed (hopefully) with logic and sensitivity?

        Maybe it’s a cliché. But it is also certainly the experience of my sister, of one of my college roommates, of one of my colleagues, and of my aunt. The best I have done, and maybe it’s not good enough, is to not make that circumstance completely define the character, and to allow the other characters around her not to treat her like a pariah or a victim because of it.

        I have no idea if I’m doing it right, because no matter how closely or how often I’ve observed that experience, it’s just not specifically my experience.

        • I think that’s a valid concern — but it sounds like you have been striving to get to the heart of the matter and portray it honestly. Would/has your sister read what you wrote?

          • Thanks, I have been trying to do it with extreme sensitivity. My sister hasn’t read it yet, though I’ve offered for her to read the whole novel, only because she hasn’t had time to. And now I’m revising it, so it’ll wait a while longer.

    • Thanks Heather! I apologize for not responding sooner, but for some reason this comment got stuck in my spam folder! 🙁 My apologies for not checking that sooner.

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