An Interview With Mark Oshiro: Part II

Mark OshiroWelcome to the second part of my interview with Mark Oshiro, of “Mark Reads”, “Mark Watches”, and “Mark Plays”.     Last week Mark talked about how he started “Mark Reads” with his series “Mark Reads Twilight”.  In this interview, we talk about his thoughts on diversity and his essay, “Parched”, that he wrote for Invisible, an anthology about the importance of diverse representation in fiction.

In “Parched”, you talk about not feeling represented in science fiction and fantasy.  Do you still feel drawn to those genres, and if so, why?

I always was interested in those genres as a kid, long before I knew there was a fandom.  I knew there was a fandom for The X-Files because I was super into the X-Files.  I didn’t know there was a larger fandom for the general genre.  I didn’t go to my first convention until I was in my twenties.

In terms of the general genre – the books and movies – I always had an interest in the supernatural, so I liked The X-Files and the Twilight Zone.  I liked fantasy because it was such a huge escape for me.  I grew up in a super conservative part of Southern California.  Even if I didn’t see myself in the genre, it was still fun to imagine that I could go on adventures.  Part of the problem I had growing up was that I lived in a bubble.  My parents were extremely strict, so they didn’t let me go out of the house, I wasn’t allowed to have friends over, I wasn’t allowed to go to other people’s houses.  So fantasy and sic-fi was my chance to imagine what adventures I would go on if I could leave the house.

YA [Young Adult] was particularly important to me because the characters were close to my age range.  It was a lot easier to project myself into something like that than to project myself into something like Stephen King or Heinlein, because those characters were a bit older.  I was always more Sci-Fi than Fantasy.  I like the idea of using our world to explain another one and using things we’ve learned about our world in order to invent other ones.  It’s always been easy for me to write science fiction.

If you could adapt any book into a film, and you have total control over the script and the casting, what would you adapt into film and who would you cast?

My initial answer with no hesitation is to remake His Dark Materials because The Golden Compass was a disaster, and hearing how much the studio changed everything that Chris Weitz wanted to do is very frustrating.  That trilogy is my favorite thing I’ve ever read for “Mark Reads” hands down.

I’d love to do Tamora Pierce’s Tricksters Series, because that series is almost entirely compassed of people of color.  And it has such a great story.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Casting?  Oh My God.  I have no idea!

Can you talk a little bit more about the gap you refer to in your essay between the white dystopian future and the dystopian present that you already experience?

There’s a writer whose name I can’t remember who was talking about the omission of people of color from dystopias.  They stated that there’s a problem when you don’t write people of color in dystopias novels because you are implying that these people are not in the future.  Someone made this point about The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed as much as you can enjoy something that is one of the most disturbing stories ever written.  And yeah I was like twenty pages in and I went, “Everyone’s white!  Where are all these other people!  And there are vague hints that there’s this other place.  But when you don’t explain that, and you don’t include any other parts of the world – when I read that, all I can think is that you’ve killed them all off!  If they were all killed, then not having that addressed in the text becomes distracting.  It becomes like the controversy around The Thirteenth Child  by Patricia Wrede.

cover of The Thirteenth Child

Basically Patricia Wrede wrote The Thirteenth Child as a fantasy set in a version of the United States in which megafauna still exist.  I don’t know her intentions, but in the book none of the native peoples of America exist.  They’re all written out.  They never happened.  It’s very creepy.  I understand that it’s challenging to write about something that you’re not.  But to approach it as “They’re just gone” – there’s too much history in our country of wiping people out and not including them.  I think with dystopian fiction the problem is more glaring because you’re talking about a vision of the future in which things are awful.  But if your vision of the future is not addressing something that is very real and is already happening, it feels disingenuous to me.

This whole concept is actually playing a humongous part in the novel that I’m working on right now, which is essentially a pre-dystopian trilogy.  Because I wanted to address this idea that people of color have to deal with systemic issues that – well, it’s not that our lives are awful as marginalized people.  We all find ways to find joy and enjoy ourselves.  But when you face systemic issues you feel like you are living in these awful alternate futures that are described in these books.  I wanted to write a book that not only openly addressed that but also featured all of these characters.  Of course there’s a larger question of diversity in general, which is why the community in general should be asking themselves why so many of these books are purposely skewed towards one demographic.  It’s an uncomfortable question, and it has uncomfortable answers, but I don’t think that’s a reason why we shouldn’t ask it.  From that uncomfortableness so many things can be born of it.

On how including diverse characters makes for better writing:

I think the thing that bothers me the most about it is that it’s not like we’re talking about policy.  We’re talking about people who are creative, who are writers, who create worlds, who are constantly faced with  roadblocks in their own writing, where they hit plot holes or they get stuck or they get writer’s block.  Writers constantly have to adapt to those things. So I don’t understand how, when you’re faced with issues of representation and diversity, writers don’t see them as the same thing.  This is a challenge.  This is a way for me to write better, to fix problems. Instead it’s viewed as censorship.  But would you say that writing a plot hole and having someone tell you need to fix it is censorship?  No!  It’s not!  Also, usually, people who say sort of thing don’t understand what censorship is.  I think authors need to see this as a challenge to make your work better, to make your world better.

If you’re  complaining about how hard it is – well, how hard is good world building?  How hard is doing research to capture a historical event?  These are things that incredibly difficult, and it doesn’t make sense to me to suddenly say, “Oh, this one thing is so incredibly difficult, I’m not touching it”.  Why?  Why that one thing?  That, to me, seems less of “It’s difficult” and more of “I don’t want to do it”.

Whenever I talk about race or sexuality in my reviews, I always get a response of “Well, what do you want people to do?  Do you want everyone in the story to be a queer person?  Do you want everyone to be a person of color?”  And you’re not asking the reverse question, which is “Why is everyone straight?  why is everyone white?”  Also, what’s the problem with having everyone be a person of color?  Then I get a response of “More diversity would be unrealistic” and my response is, “Where are you going in the world where that’s not happening?”

I’ve been reading a series on YouTube called Rivers of London.  The books are super diverse.  It’s great.  I get comments all the time, “Oh, he just added that character in to be diverse”.  And I’m all, “No, that person is affecting the story – and also, Hey!  Have you not been to London lately?”  Honestly, it shocked me when I went to London for the first time last year, and maybe one out of every five people was white.  I said, “This is not the London I see on television”.  Same thing when I went to Toronto.  There are immigrants everywhere!  How are you creating these world, whether in books or on television, that don’t include these people?

London crowd

Busy Boxing Day Sales Shopping Crowd in London

An Interview With Mark Oshiro: The Birth of “Mark Reads”!

Mark Oshiro

I’ve been interviewing people who contributed to Invisible, an anthology about the importance of diverse representation in science fiction and fantasy.  You can imagine that I was thrilled when I realized that Mark Oshiro, who contributed the essay “Parched”, was going to be doing an event in my town.

I love interviewing authors in person but I have two teensy problems:

1)  I totally fangirl out.  Everyone likes to be appreciated but no one wants their interviewer to be drooling on their shoes.  I don’t follow everything Mark does, but I follow enough that shoe drool was a definite danger.

2) I have trouble thinking of questions – especially new questions.  The question, “What can you tell me about your next project?”  is an important and necessary question, but after an author has been asked that 500 times they start answering it by snoring in morse code.

It turns out that Mark is really easy to interview because he’s very nice (totally pretended not to notice the drool) and he loves to talk.  The trick to getting a good interview with Mark is to say, “OK, the recorder is on” and get out of the way.  He’s so interesting to listen to that I’m running this interview as a two-parter.  Today, Mark tells the story of how “Mark Reads” was born, and we engage in some fellow book critic whining about Twilight (why, Bella, why?).  Next week we talk about diversity in genre fiction.

Here’s Mark, talking about how “Mark Reads” started as a project for the benefit of four people and turned into a full-time job:

“Mark Reads Twilight” started as a bet.  It was 2009, and I was still living in Los Angeles.  I was working for Buzznet.  I had been covering San Diego Comic Con for the past few years, and my editor said, “I can get you a four-day pass, and you can cover whatever you want – I just need you to cover the Twilight panel.  I said, “No way!  I don’t know anything about it!”  and he said, “Well, if you don’t do that, you can’t go”.

So I showed up on Wednesday to pick up my press pass.  I got there Wednesday at three and the Twilight panel was going to be happening on Friday at 12, and there already about 800 people lined up for the panel.  I was kind of worried, because this was the sole thing I had to cover.  By Friday night there were 2000 people in line.  So I get up at 3am friday morning and get to the line at about 4AM and I’m bored, I’m SO bored.  And I’m listening to all these conversations in the line from people around me, because I’m the only person in my section of the line who doesn’t know anybody else.  And people are having these really in-depth conversations about Twilight.  They’re talking about different characters and different relationships, and all these thing that apparently mean a lot to them.  So I start thinking, “Maybe I’m wrong about Twilight.  Maybe there’s a reason I’m missing out on it”.

Line to get into Hall H for Twilight Panel, 2009

Line to get into Hall H for Twilight Panel, 2009

So I decided to change what I was writing about, and I started asking people questions about Twilight, up and down the line.  I complied a photo gallery and series of short interviews.  I asked everyone I talked to the same ten questions about Twilight.  In the process of doing so I got passed up the line.  This was totally accidental, but I ended up getting in the front group, because people kept saying, “Oh you should go talk to this person” and sending me around.  So by the end I ended up sitting ten feet away from Robert Pattinson.

Robert Pattinson

Robert Pattinson doesn’t get it, either.

So I talked to all these people, and they all had incredible answers.  I published the piece on Saturday and my editor was really happy with the response it got.  He said, “I think it would be really funny if you read Twilight and made comments about it”.  The idea got stuck in my head and I started “Mark Reads Twilight”.  It was literally for my editor and four people in my office.  In the early days there were some people on Buzznet who commented, but it wasn’t a thing until half way through the book when I wrote my own autopsy report.  That got linked on Reddit and then half the Internet found me.  so by the end of the first book, my editor said, “You can’t stop.  This is now you’re thing”.  So that is a big explanation of  “Mark Reads Twilight”, and why it’s sort of a slow descent into awful.  I was so angry, because it’s so awful, especially once you get into Eclipse, which is not just awful but is horrible to read.

I finished reading Twilight my co-worker said, “That was funny, and it was great, but I want to see what happens if I give you something to read and you end up enjoying it.  So she was the one who wound up giving my Harry Potter.  If you read the first few chapters of “Mark Reads Harry Potter”, you can see that I try really hard to hate it.  I didn’t want to go in saying, “I like this because it’s not Twilight”.  I didn’t think that was a fair reading of the book.  But then I met Hagrid and I was all, “OK!”.

“Mark Reads Harry Potter” got about 100 comments a day until near the end of Goblet of Fire.  Leaky Cauldron and Muggle Net linked to it on the same day and suddenly in a matter of 24 hours every Harry Potter fan in the universe was reading me.  It was bizarre.

cover of Mark Reads Goblet of Fire

Not long after that I ended up quitting my job and moving to the Bay Area.  Because here’s what a lot of people don’t know – all that stuff I did, I never got paid for.  My boss said I had to do it to keep my job – but I had to do it on top of my regular job.  So I got a job in the Bay Area, and when that job ended I said, “OK, this hobby is way too big to be a hobby.  Make I should figure out a way to make it more than a hobby”.

Me:  So, let’s talk a little bit about Twilight – mostly for selfish reasons, because I’m in the middle of writing about it and I’m stuck.  Does Bella have any source of power that she consciously exercises   She get’s what she wants, but does she DO anything to get it?” 

Mark:  No, she doesn’t have any power – not until the last book, and then, it’s a plot contrivance.  The whole point of Twilight, if you look at her whole relationship with Edward, is that she has to have him in order to have any power.  She never learn about her shield power without Edward.  It’s a hard question, because she’s such a passive protagonist.  She’s not passive as a person, because she definitely fights for certain things, but in terms of action she’s rarely the person pushing the action forward, which is very strange for what’s essentially supposed to be an action book.  I don’t think it’s impossible to do that; I just think that the execution in Twilight is very strange.

Stay tuned next week for more from Mark Oshiro!