Guest Post: Magical Indians That Aren’t Magical Indians: Faith Hunter and Patricia Briggs get it right

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post, Jessica MacDonald talks about how to write Native American characters without resorting to stereotypes.

In April, news broke about a new Netflix-based movie by Adam Sandler where he and his producers showed extreme disrespect for indigenous people. It served as a reminder that in 2015, Natives are still fighting to be seen as part of the world, not as historically inaccurate stereotypes. Reading books, watching movies—it’s like playing Are You Kidding Me bingo. Magical Indian here, Noble Savage there, Red Devil over here. Tropes so ingrained that most viewers or readers don’t even realize how off base they really are.

Which is why it’s refreshing to come across series that put in the legwork to not only craft multi-dimensional Native characters, but also ground their mythology in actual Native legends. Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series both nail it.

Let’s start with Mercy Thompson. She’s a mixed-race protagonist, another rarity—Blackfeet and white. She’s a mechanic who owns her own garage in the Tri-Cities area of Washington state, and she’s also a skinwalker: she can change into a coyote. A distinction is drawn in the series between werewolves, who are beholden to the moon and must preserve mass (so a 200lb man becomes a 200lb wolf), but Mercy can shift at will, and becomes a true coyote, small size and all. More of her story and power is revealed through the series, tying her ability not to her status as an indigenous person, but more because of her specific backstory. This point matters: In many Magical Indian portrayals, no explanation is given for the character’s abilities other than her Native status. This form of positive stereotyping is othering; it confers that Natives are magical, connected to the earth, control the elements, whatever, simply by being Native. As if we are not human. But with Mercy’s story, there are specific reasons related to the Blackfeet legend of Napi that explain her powers. Hers is a hero’s story, where she is indeed special, but with reason and depth.

Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee vampire hunter, and also a shapeshifter. Her mythology is a little different: the animal spirit, “Beast” as she calls it, is a consciousness living inside her. They share one body but are two entities. Where Briggs keeps the Blackfeet legends at the edges of her world, Hunter brings Cherokee myth front and center, both as an explanation for Jane’s powers and as part of her overall world-building. It’s a nice break from European-centric mythos, even as both authors do a great job of blending European monsters with Native myths. There’s a specific scene in the first Jane Yellowrock novel with a tribal elder that’s offering some information that Jane needs. This elder is not dressed in buckskins and a headdress; she is modern, speaks proper English (as opposed to Tonto-ese), and lays the foundation for revelations about Jane that come later in the story. This flushes out both Jane and the mythos; it’s not a hack job pulling a few Native legends in for flavor, but a well-developed, rich world that remains respectful of the Cherokee origins that inspired it.

Briggs and Hunter do exactly what we’re asking for when we say we want representation. They give us dynamic, multi-dimensional indigenous characters that are not defined solely by their Native-ness. It can seem like a fine line to white authors—how do you bring in Native stories without stereotyping characters as Magical Indians, Indian Princesses, or Noble Savages?

The answer is fairly simple: Create real human beings. Research the experience of indigenous people, maybe even meet with a tribal government and interview them. Ground characters’ powers in a rich backstory rather than in what amounts to “because Indian.” Be respectful of the mythologies. Your Native characters can be magical, badass, savage, noble, murderous, heroic, powerful, weak—but make them real, the way Briggs and Hunter have. Our race is part of who we are, but it is not all we are. Your characters should be the same.

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Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for RF Digital, where real life magic happens. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter at @coloradojess or on her website at http://www.madewithwords.net.

Book Review: Sci-Fi Chronicles, edited by Guy Haley

Welcome to what is possibly the shortest review ever posted on this blog – my review of sci-fi chronicles: a visual history of the galaxy’s greatest science fiction.

Here’s the review:

This book is really fun and a great reference guide, but if you share a bathroom with your husband and daughter don’t leave it in there because people will read it in the bathroom and forget to come out while you do the bathroom dance of “I need to pee but someone is in the bathroom reading that damn book again.”

To elaborate:

This book has an entry for most major science fiction works from 1818 (Frankenstein) to 2009 (Avatar). It includes a chart of spaceships (oooooooooh) and a vast chronology and a glossary of genre definitions. Something like Frankenstein  gets multiple pages, that include information about the original work and further adaptations.

I mean be honest, isn’t that just beautiful? Some works have a two-page spread of color photos, other have a single entry. The entries include books, movies, TV shows, and comics. It’s very well-organized and a lot of fun to browse through, which is why keeping it in the bathroom is both obvious and disastrous.

The entries are not neutral in tone. They are, essentially, a series of reviews, although they are all careful to note the legacies of the works. The real fun of the book is in how meticulously it shows the connections between works and the scope of science fiction. The index alone is a work of art. I highly recommend this book. Just be careful where you put it.

Between the Lines Book Club: A Short Bio and Discussion of Richard Powers

between the lines book club logoThis month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Orfeo by Richard Powers. If you live in or near Sacramento, California, please join us in person for coffee, pastries, and discussion at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library on July 25. Otherwise, leave your comments below!

Richard Powers is the author of eleven novels to date. He’s famous for cerebral novels, that frequently involve science and the ways science influences the human experience. His novel The Echo Maker won the National Book Award.

Powers was born in Illinois and spent several years in Thailand as a child. He moved back to Illinois as a teen and studies English Literature. His first job was as a computer programmer. Powers’ first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, won him so much publicity that he moved to The Netherlands to avoid it.

Critics tend to praise Powers for his ideas and criticize him for his characters. While Powers is concerned with deep thoughts, he doesn’t neglect plot. As Margot Atwood said of him:

On the other hand, there are books you read once and there are other books you read more than once because they are so flavorful, and then there are yet other books that you have to read more than once. Powers is in the third category: the second time through is necessary to pick up all the hidden treasure-hunt clues you might have missed on your first gallop through the plot. You do gallop, because Powers can plot. Of some books you don’t ask How will it all turn out? since that isn’t the point. It’s certainly part of the point with Powers. Only part, however.

If you’ve been reading Orfeo, what do you think? Did the science overwhelm the humanity of the characters, or vice versa, or is there balance? Were you swept up in the plot or caught up in the ideas? Every Powers book is a balancing act and opinions vary widely with each book on how well the act is accomplished. All critics seem to agree that every Powers book is worth the readers’ time, because of the discussions of science, art, and emotion.

Math as SuperPower: An Interview with SL Huang

cover of Invisible 2This post is part of a series of interviews and guest posts from contributors to Invisible 2, edited by Jim C. Hines. You can find our review here. In this post,SL Huang talks about math as superpower, and the advantages to the writer of including diverse characters in a story.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Russell’s Attic series?

It’s about an antihero protagonist whose superpower is mathematics — being able to do math really, really fast.  Which basically lets her do almost anything.

But I’ve been reliably informed by my readers that the books aren’t really about math.  They’re action/adventure stories about friendship and found family and sticky moral situations and trying to make the right decisions while not really being sure of anything.  They’re about nerdiness and snark and superpowers, and gun fights and car chases and close escapes.

More than anything, I hope they’re about being entertaining!

In other words, you don’t need any math knowledge to read the books.  But if you like the idea of a heroine who thinks she’s in a Hausdorff space while drugged up on painkillers, this might be the series for you.

I love the idea of math as a superpower? How did you choose that superpower, and how does Cas use it?

I’ve had this idea of math as a superpower ever since I was a kid, because . . . I always wished I had it!  I’d be doing something like learning softball and think, “But I can calculate exactly where the ball will be!  WHY CAN’T I HIT IT???”

I gradually realized that math would be the best superpower ever, because what couldn’t you do with it?  I’ve actually had to put some limits on Cas’s powers (for instance, the fact that she doesn’t have a perfect memory means she can’t use her math ability to analyze past events) to avoid her becoming TOO powerful.  But she can calculate anything in the moment, which makes her an incredible sharpshooter and fighter, as well as giving her subtler skills like the abilities to become effectively invisible or listen in on conversations just by doing the right calculations.  Economics, computer science, and physics are all her playground, and she can do everything from detecting AI to piloting a helicopter.

She’d make a fortune on Wall Street if she were ever interested, but she’s kind of allergic to a nine-to-five job . . . or, you know, joining society.

In your essay for Invisible 2, you talk about no longer being afraid to write characters who represent a variety of demographics (non-white, female, non-binary, disabled, non-neurotypical, non-Western). Can you tell us about a few of your characters? Did you find that having a diverse cast of characters enriched your story?

Oh, I have definitely found a diverse cast enriching.  The characters’ backgrounds inform how they interact with the world, so greater diversity means they push or pull the plot in a greater number of different directions.  If all my characters were the same, they’d give me a pretty homogeneous set of possibilities.  But the more differences they have, the more plot and character arc opportunities I have, and that includes not just differences of personality and opinion, but differences in background, gender, sexual orientation, race, and more.

That all sounds terribly selfish, doesn’t it?  Richer writing opportunities is certainly not the main reason I write diversely!  But I kinda DO wish it were talked about more.  Including diverse characters is instead always referred to as this onus, this thing that we should do but is hard work — so much research and (horrors!) THOUGHT that needs to be involved, etc., etc..  People never talk about how there are so many ways having diverse characters is beneficial to the writer.  If we’re going to be self-centered about things, I’ve come to realize it’s a natural conclusion to write diverse characters.

Most of the ways my characters’ differences end up pushing the plot are subtle ones.  For instance, in Book 3 (out this fall!), which features two new nonwhite, female mathematicians, one of them has her assumed anonymity turn on the use of a pronoun.  In book 2, an African-American character points out my protagonist can pass using another woman’s ID because they’re both nonwhite.  The non-USA-ian background of my protagonist will become a clue to her past in book 4.  In both books 1 and 2, giving a character with a physical disability the proper accessibility created way more plot and character possibilities than it limited.  And on and on — character backgrounds, relationships, reactions, and conflicts are all enriched by the characters’ diversity.

I don’t plan these things.  I make my characters first, and let them drive the plot.  But the more diverse they are — either by being different from the hegemonic majority in their world, or just different from each other in all sorts of ways — the more it opens all sorts of avenues I otherwise wouldn’t have.

Why should we care about representation in fiction?

1) Allowing for the possibility of diversity improves storytelling.  I recently saw an interview with George Miller, the creator and director of Mad Max: Fury Road, which has been lauded for being an ensemble action movie that dared to have a mostly-female team of heroes.  Miller said he didn’t intend any shattering feminism with the movie — he was just trying to tell a good story, and that was where the brainstorming took him.

Which is amazing to me.  I want that.  I want that in our world, that people’s brainstorming will take them to a team of female heroes for an action movie just as often as it will populate an action movie almost entirely with men.  It’s ridiculous to me that we can look at this movie that grew out of a normal brainstorming process with no overt feminist design and think, “Wow, how on earth did they get a movie with that many women in it greenlit?!”

But all Miller did was allow for the possibility, and we got an incredible story.  I love Mad Max because it’s a great movie, full stop.

2) It’s a matter of honesty.  When I look around my life in LA, the amount of diversity is staggering.  I’ll look around at a party and realize that half the people are nonwhite or half the people are queer, not by any intentional selection process, just because they are.  Once I worked on a string of three films in a row that had almost no white people on the cast and crew — they were an African-American Western, a Colombian music video, and a Japanese commercial.  The group I used to watch Doctor Who with only had one guy and one white person (not the same person).  None of this is by design; it’s just the world I live in.

When we write fictional worlds in which this sort diversity is purposely excised — and, yes, purposely, no matter how non-maliciously, because writing non-diversely is a choice as much as writing diversely is — it’s dishonest.  It’s taking reality and altering it for no good reason whatsoever.  And it’s not only dishonest, it’s dishonest in a way that is hurtful to members of the audience.  The feeling that “people like me” are erased from fictional realities is not a pleasant one . . . and after a while, it becomes exhausting.

3) Media impacts the way we interact with other humans in reality.  We all have subconscious biases in thousands of ways; that’s just the way our brains work.  It’s illogical to think media representations (or non-representations) of diversity don’t affect how we perceive the world, or that the biases in media don’t have a cheerful give-and-take with real-world systemic prejudice.  Characters in fiction can affect how we see others and how we see ourselves.

Unconscious institutional bias is one of the hardest types of bias to combat.  The more good representation in fiction can push back against that, the better a place the world will be.

4) If you want a selfish reason: It opens up more plot and character opportunities, as above.

5) Also partially selfishly: I’ll add that writing people with backgrounds vastly different from mine is constantly improving my own empathy and humanity.  Most of the research I do is to go and read and listen.  And if I’m listening well enough to help me write a character, it’s impossible for me not to become a more understanding human.  This is especially true considering that (obviously) people from any one demographic are not a monolith, so there’s no limit to the nuance of human experience I can learn from.

What book (other than your own) should we stick in a beach bag this summer, should we be lucky enough to have a beach visit in our future?

I’m going to diverge a little from my usual here and recommend a graphic novel. I don’t read a lot of graphic novels because I tend to get eyestrain from them (sadness!), but this one is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

It’s called “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage,” by Sydney Padua.  And it’s about Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in a steampunk alternate universe, one where she doesn’t die young and he actually finishes his inventions and they team up to FIGHT CRIME.

For those who don’t know, Charles Babbage is often credited with inventing the computer, and Ada Lovelace — a brilliant mathematician — is credited with being the first computer programmer, as she wrote a program for the machine Babbage had invented but not yet built.  Yes, you read that right — she wrote a computer program for a computer that hadn’t been built, and she did it before programming had been invented.  The two were, in fact, good friends in reality, but both had lives (a short life, in Lovelace’s case) punctuated by tragedy and personal demons.

Anyway, I have been head over heels for Padua’s work since it debuted as a webcomic.  The wit!  The humor!  The art!  Ada Lovelace debugging a giant Difference Engine by climbing inside and hitting things with a crowbar!  Oh, and the FOOTNOTES!  Padua includes a whole mess of historical footnotes, some even funnier than the comic, and some that read along the lines of, “Yes, believe it or not, Charles Babbage said this for real. It’s in his autobiography.”

This is one of those books I can’t stop trying to get people to read, because it’s just too good.  Definitely pop it in your beach bag!

SL Huang justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction, starting with her debut novel, Zero Sum Game. In real life, you can usually find her hanging upside down from the ceiling or stabbing people with swords. Online, she’s unhealthily opinionated at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

Guide to Surviving SDCC with Kids, for Someone Who Has Just Returned

San Diego Comic Con logoLast year I went to Comic-Con (henceforth referred to as SDCC) with a group, but I was always doing my own thing “for work”, and I responsible for nothing but taking a ton of notes. This year I was responsible for the lives of three children, which is why now all my hair is completely white and I stare into the void with haunted eyes. Did I have fun?  Yes, absolutely – but I didn’t really realize that until we were all home on Sunday night and I counted children. Not only do I have the same number of kids I left with, but I even have the same kids. So hey – parenting win!

If you take kids to SDCC, here’s some things to keep in mind:

There is child care.

Not free, alas, but very reasonably priced. My team was a little old for it – they are tweens so not old enough to roam unprotected but too old to want to go to child care. However, a friend of mine used it last year for his younger kids and they adored it and begged to stay.

There are some events specifically for kids.

Most of these are on Sunday, when one room is devoted to different craft and art projects all day. There’s also a Children’s Film Festival.

By and large, SDCC is aimed at adults.

This means that if you go to a panel, expect some off-color remarks and some profanity. If you walk down the street, you will hear cussing from people on the street (not at you, just a cloud of general cussing). Some outfits are skimpy and some involve fake gore. As a parent who is very lenient about language in the sense that I curse non-stop in front of my darling daughter (sorry, honey) I didn’t find anything objectionable – but it’s not like going to Disneyland where the priority is making kids happy. With a few exceptions, the SDCC crowd is grown-ups having grown-up fun. They are happy to have you and your family present, but they might not tone things down for your benefit.

Have back-up plans in case of separation.

Here are some pictures of SDCC crowds:

Here's a crowd of people waiting to get on the trolley, with a crowd in the background trying to cross the street. The staff who did crosswalk duty were incredible - assertive but also polite and with a sense of humor. Thanks, guys!

Here’s a crowd of people waiting to get on the trolley, with a crowd in the background trying to cross the street. The staff who did crosswalk duty were incredible – assertive but also polite and with a sense of humor. Thanks, guys!

This is a terrible photo, but I hope it shows you how packed the trolley gets. No one falls down because we are so closely packed in together.

This is a terrible photo, but I hope it shows you how packed the trolley gets. No one falls down because we are so closely packed in together.

People trying to get on the escalator to the lobby and Exhibit Hall.

People trying to get on the escalator to the lobby and Exhibit Hall.

SERIOUSLY. That’s a lot of people and a lot of chances to get separated. Luckily, the vast majority of people at SDCC are lovely. So teach your children ahead of time that if anyone makes them afraid or uncomfortable, or they get lost, they should not hesitate to get help from a vendor or staff or, if being harassed, just yell, “THIS PERSON IS BOTHERING ME!” and multiple people will come to their aid. Also have meeting places. We had different ones depending on where we were. Separated on trolley?  Get off at next stop and wait. In Exhibit Hall? Go to the Girl Genius Booth, because we love Girl Genius and they know us well. Figure out what will work for you and make a plan. Again, out of 100 nerd, 99 are awesome. They just want to share what they love with you and make you happy. Statistically speaking, out of 100 people, one is probably going to be a jerk, so don’t be shy about enlisting the help of the nice 99 if you have any problems with that one guy.

Make physical comfort a priority over doing stuff.

Hungry? Eat. Bring snacks and be prepared to also spend a lot of money no food. Tired? Rest. Thirsty? There is water at the back of every panel room. In a full day of walking around you might only cross one thing off your list. That’s OK. Enjoy the cosplay and drink your water!

Enjoy the moment.

I was so stressed out I almost forgot to enjoy where I was – but we had a great (and safe) time! The kids learned to make steampunk bracelets, they met stormtroopers, they saw a giant minecraft display, they attended a hilarious panel at which people argued about which are the best starships, and they played their very fist Dungeons and Dragons game. And now I’m going to sleep for a week. I can’t believe I’m saying this – but I can’t wait to take them again next year!

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Between the Lines Book Club: Our Next Series!

between the lines book club logoHello everyone! Watch this space on Fridays for Between the Lines Book Club. This is where we discuss one book a month in the comments. On the fourth Saturday of every month those of us in or near Sacramento, California meet at Arden Dimick Library to discuss the books. Arden Dimick is located at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, 95864.

All gatherings are at 10:30 AM. Coffee and pastries are provided.

Here’s the line up!

July 25: Orfeo, by Richard Powers

August 22: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sept 26, The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

Oct 24: Among Others, by Jo Walton

Nov 21: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

See you soon!