Cognitive Dissonance

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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May 26, 2014

Rabid Jungle Cat takes a nap.

Rabid Jungle Cat takes a nap.

Last night on Twitter was an interesting experience.  A lot of the people I follow were at WisCon, attending N.K. Jemisin’s Guest of Honor speech–the excerpts being posted were awesome and luckily for us all, Jemisin’s put the text up online.  It’s a great speech and I bet it was even better seeing and hearing it live.

It’s a rousing call to action for those of us who want to see the full range of human experience represented in science fiction and fantasy to fight for that to happen:

And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

Really amazing stuff.  I’m so very glad we have people like Nora in genre–voices like hers are so important.

But at the same time, a call for submissions (screencap, cache–post has been edited several times, screencap of cache) went out for an anthology called World Encounters edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt (and more!)

If I were a short fiction writer interested in writing and publishing diverse works, I wouldn’t consider submitting to this anthology if it were the only one in existence.

First off, let’s talk about the way in which Schmidt sets himself up as an expert in other cultures–he cautions the writers to be very careful when writing about Africa because not only has he been there, he’s getting a story from Mike Resnick who, apparently, is an expert in all 54 countries in Africa but also in the hundreds or thousands of ethnic groups and cultures there. He also has a Mexican friend or two.

He’s also reserving some slots in the anthology for “up and coming foreign natives”–my initial response to that was frankly unprintable because if you’re editing an anthology of first contact stories and the inevitable culture clash that will follow, of course you’re going to want people writing from a diverse array of backgrounds. You don’t need to say that you’re going to be operating a quota system or imply that you’re going to accept sub-par work from people who aren’t white Westerners.

Schmidt would also like to keep politics out of his anthology and I am just not really sure what he means by this because everything is politics. Unless he means that politics are only things he doesn’t agree with? Wouldn’t first contact stories be, by definition, political stories? There’s something about not wanting this to be a divisive anthology, too, but does that mean that he’s not going to publish stories that challenge his worldview?

But he also thinks that “Africans seem to find joy in the little things and lack of things which we take for granted as well” (link) which is just really fucking gross and paternalistic.  Later in that same post he draws a comparison between visiting prisons and visiting other countries.  I can’t see any way to interpret that in a way that isn’t gross.

It’s also pretty clear that he sees the audience for this anthology as white Western readers–his use of the phrase “we Westerners” is extraordinarily telling–he’s expecting the “foreign natives” and POC writers to take on the burden of educating white Western readers but he’s not going to give them any word count allowance  to define non-English words or phrases or provide any sort of translation assistance.

Finally, he wants to keep this anthology PG-rated so kids can read it with their parents but he’s not going to read submissions from people he thinks are assholes or people who have been mean to him on the internets.  I wish he’d publish the list so people on it would know not to waste their time.

Then again, if I were a writer and if I read a call for submissions that was this poorly written and edited, even if I didn’t have concerns about the content of the call, I would have serious reservations about the editing process.  I’d be concerned that it wouldn’t be a collaborative effort to make the story the best it could be but that it would be a series of top-down dictates (“Must be willing to respect the editor’s editing requests” which, okay, does anyone who submits to an anthology go Anne Rice on the editor?). I’d also be concerned that the editor would break my story and not even realize it in an attempt to make it fit his narrow conception of the world.

I’ve had some private discussions with folks about his editorial process and I think I can safely say that without revealing specifics, Schmidt is likely the sort of editor who browbeats you until you agree with his edits and if you don’t, he becomes disrespectful at best and dismissive at worst. Very much a “Father knows best” sort of editor.

In conclusion: this is a terrible call for submissions because it’s so badly written but, on the other hand, the editor’s biases are right there for interested parties to see, so that’s something. It’s not a lot, but it is something.

ETA: Hiromi Goto’s Guest of Honor speech at WisCon is also wonderful. A small taste:

How important, then, that published stories come from diverse sources; from the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many rather than from the imagination of dominant white culture. For even as we’ve been enriched and enlightened by tales from Western tradition, stories are also carriers and vectors for ideologies. And the white literary tradition has a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming.

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  1. Veronica Schanoes

    It’s the “Africa” parts that get me the most.

    Also, and less politically: “I want a funny story but not too funny. Not too little action, but not too much, either…” Is there an editor out there who puts out a call that says things like “I want a story with too much action and not enough humor”?

  2. Natalie Luhrs

    @Veronica Schanoes: The “Africa” parts are just so incredibly clueless. It’s such a diverse continent, there is no way one or two people (who don’t live there!) could be experts! And agreed: it’s a very…muddled call.

  3. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Thanks, Natalie.

    I made a comment to someone on twitter that there are writers who will submit to this, regardless, because they just want to be published.

    Clearly, though, just as there are authors who this anthology and Bryan’s editing has and does suit, there are many who shouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole, and the wording of the call for submission makes that absolutely clear.

  4. Polenth

    The call does give an accurate impression of the final anthology, I’ll give it that. It makes it clear it’s one to avoid.

  5. Fishmonkey

    Funny thing is, a lot of people who could write a non-terrible story for such an antho have been mean to him on the internet, likely over his hand-wringing re: SFWA “PC police” in the Resnick-Malzberg kerfuffle.

  6. Bluestgirlblog

    Fucking amazing speech.

    True story: when I was in 6th grade, the school organized an “olympics” where each classroom was assigned a country, and then there were athletic competitions. My classroom was Australia. Another classroom was Norway, and so on. And one of the classrooms was Africa.

    Even at the time I knew that was bullshit. And 24 years later, grown-ass men still can’t tell the difference between a country, culture, or continent.

  7. Cecilia Tan

    Wow. All I can say is wow.

  8. Ann Somerville

    Well, at least the call is guaranteed to produce a book that Messrs Schmidt and Resnick will buy, at least. And that, ultimately, is all they care about.

  9. Periwinkle

    Africa? Is that where it’s always sunset over the two acacia trees?

    This post contained the second image macro with lyrics from the Toto song “Africa” that I’ve seen today. I had to sing it once, and I never want to hear it again. Why is it following me around? (For what it’s worth, the writers claim that it’s not about stereotypes they hold. Instead, within the song, “… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” That still sounds like ironic racism to me, and the band’s own music video plays it straight. As of 2013, they continue to describe the song’s influence in patronizing ways. While there seems to be room for discussion about where the category of World Music came from, I’m not buying David Paich’s claim that a pop band comprised entirely of Western white males was a “forerunner”.)

  10. Maureen O'Danu

    I literally abandoned speculative fiction (both reading and writing) for nearly two decades after the significant pushback I received in my twenties when I was writing stories and submitting them being ignored and reading them and realizing that women were window dressing or sex objects and people of color were practically non-existent. This was in an era of science fiction where the most progressive science fiction I could find was Heinlein (oh, yeah, Octavia Butler and Chip Delaney were out there, but in my local library? Not so much).

    I soaked up works by Ursula LeGuin and Madeleine L’Engle and the other fine female writers out there, and searched for but largely didn’t find writers of color (this was pre-internet, and I got blank stares from librarians and book store owners when I asked).

    And now that we have the internet, and it’s impossible not to see the fine writers out there that are either not white or not male or both, we *still* have this same bull at the editing point. Makes me crazy. No matter, after a nearly two decade hiatus, I am back to reading, and now that my sons are grown and almost grown, back to writing.

    I won’t be buying, submitting to, nor supporting that book.

  11. Orodemniades

    Honestly, the whole thing is terrible, but I can’t get over the phrase ‘foreign natives’.

    I mean, just, what?

  12. Daveon

    @Natalie Luhrs:

    ” there is no way one or two people (who don’t live there!) could be experts! ”

    There’s no way that one or two people who live there could be experts, no more than somebody living in a nice part of Seattle is all that much of an expert in what it’s like to live in rural Kentucky.

    It’s also entirely possible to go to African, say, Cape Town, and stay somewhere that makes Southern California look rather downmarket and a bit nasty. And then you could drive inland from there for an hour and end up somewhere which would look and feel a lot like poor rural America – and that’s without leaving predominately white areas. And that’s just a tiny part of a single country there.

    Last week a hipster tried to lecture my Africa born wife on their piercing by saying it was ‘African’ – the results were ugly to say the least. They slunk away after being asked which tribal culture they’d got it from, where in Africa were they from and what was the cultural significance to the tribe of the act in the first place.

    But I’m not sure that this is really intolerance it feels more like run of the mill classical colonialism and crappy education to me.

  13. Daveon

    Amusingly this cuts in lots of different ways. My niece did her degree at a US University. She’s a white South African born after Nelson Mandela was elected. When she arrived in St Louis the teaching staff kept asking her if she could read and write English, even though she’s a native English speaker because ‘Africa’ doesn’t use English. She then had to attend remedial English for non-English speakers because the teaching staff refused to believe her when she said it was her first language. She then got marked down in an Essay because she was told she couldn’t spell. When she pointed out that she’d not realized the differences between British English as taught in her school and American English, the English professor insisted there was no difference. Eventually she had to appeal and managed to get out of doing the class.

    Confusion about ‘Africa’ is manifold and complex but insanely frustrating for anybody with family from there who come to visit.

  14. Tasha Turner

    Thank you for explaining what I couldn’t put my finger on. I read the requirements once. I reread them to my husband. I knew there was something off but I couldn’t figure out what specifically was wrong.

  15. --E

    “Foreign natives”? Is it so hard to say, “I welcome and encourage submissions from people of all nations, cultures, and identities”?

    I guess that would go against his strict word count.

  16. Ann Somerville

    @–E: “I guess that would go against his strict word count. ”

    And it wouldn’t be truthful either.

  17. neongrey

    The sad thing here is that, you know, conceptually it’s not bankrupt– I think an anthology about disparate cultures (failing to) get along with an eye towards edutaining kids would be really great, actually.

    However, this call for submissions makes it pretty clear that this won’t be that book. Claiming to be an expert on Africa is like claiming to be an expert on science– the sheer breadth of the field gives the lie to the pretense of blanket expertise. And it seems so obvious! Some head-up-assedness really baffles me.

  18. Geoffrey A. Landis

    “Africa? Is that where it’s always sunset over the two acacia trees?”
    Here’s the covers of the ten best African novels according to the Telegraph: not a single “sunset over two acacia trees” among them.
    And here are the ten best contemporary African novels, according to the Guardian: still no sunset over two acadia trees.
    I think the article showing that all novels about Africa have the same cover was cherry-picking.

  19. Sami

    I once was involved with an organisation and had an argument with the president of it. She was wanting us to get involved with a guy’s charity project.

    This guy’s project was collecting second-hand shoes so they could be given to poor people in Africa.

    I thought this was a terrible, terrible thing for us to devote our time and resources to. Going barefoot in a warm climate when you’re accustomed to doing so is no hardship. (We live in Australia. She should have already known that anyway.) I argued that if we were going to be making efforts towards charity in impoverished parts of Africa, then trying to increase people’s access to clean drinking water, say, would be a more helpful and less disgustingly patronising thing to do than sending them used shoes.

    Her counter-argument was that this guy knew what he was doing – he had come *from Africa*.

    I have a feeling this editor dude would feel the same way about that, too. And would also have struggled with my reply, which was to point out that I, too, am African. (Which is true.) One person’s claim to a personal idea’s applicability as capital-T Truth must be correct, if that person somehow fits your preconceptions about their representation of something foreign to you no matter how vast and complex that is, as a subject.

  20. HelenS

    “I’m not a real doctor, but I have a master’s degree! In Africa!”

  21. Quatermain

    “He’s also reserving some slots in the anthology for “up and coming foreign natives”…You don’t need to say that you’re going to be operating a quota system or imply that you’re going to accept sub-par work from people who aren’t white Westerners.”

    I don’t see what’s so unconscionable about this. After all, he’s only following the same practices that the government does in hiring and that universities do in admissions. Or does the terribleness come in when he states outright that that’s what he’s doing instead of letting it be some sort of understood code-word subtext?

  22. Veronica Schanoes

    That’s not actually what governments and universities do. For one thing, there is no mandate in either one to hire/admit “foreign natives.” Rest assured that the US government and US universities are both concerned with hiring/admitting Americans. For another, no aspect of affirmative action implies that the people who benefit from it (overwhelmingly white women, by the way) need be less qualified.

  23. Quatermain

    I realize that there is no mandate to hire ‘foreign natives,'(I have a sneaky suspicion that the belief that that is a terrible phrase will be one of our few areas of agreeance.) it is the operation of a ‘quota system’ that I was referring to and -that- is very much in practice in both spheres.

    Speaking of, you are correct in that there is no one single aspect of affirmative action that implies the recipient is less qualified. But only because it is instead the very concept itself that, at it’s core, implies that the recipient is less qualified and needs special consideration. If ‘paternalism’ is worthy of high dudgeon, I can think of few things more paternalistic than that.

  24. --E

    Quatermain: Please Google “Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about women in science,” watch the video, and then think about what you just said and how NDT’s comments might apply to people in general.

  25. Veronica Schanoes

    @Quatermain: ” But only because it is instead the very concept itself that, at it’s core, implies that the recipient is less qualified and needs special consideration.”

    No. It acknowledges the reality that highly qualified white women and PoC have been rejected again and again for less qualified white men, and sets a limit on how much of that is still allowed to go on.

    Your faith that universities would admit and governments hire only the best qualified (however they choose to measure that) regardless of race and gender is sweet, but has no evidence to support it. Indeed, now that white men are consistently under-performing academically, colleges are bending over backwards to find a way to admit them nonetheless.


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