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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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OMG Your fandom is toxic!

CW: Strong Language.

This is my surprised face:

I know. Not that surprised. It is definitely a face though.

You might wonder what the hell I’m going on about. If you are – thank your lucky stars/elixir of life/+5 Boots of Luck you don’t and don’t go digging. Walk away from this post now.

If you do know what I’m going on about then…well I’m seeing a lot of people wondering why PoC stick around when SFF fandom is so…full of people who would like to gatekeep us into what they believe is our place.

So here’s my journey back to being an SFF nerd and why in some ways I don’t give a flying fuck what old racists, homophobes, sexists and newly minted transphobes have to say and why, in others, I want to find them and remind them, forcefully, of just how irrelevant people like me make them.

I read a lot of trashy fantasy when I was growing up and some slightly more thoughtful SF. I had a wall of the stuff and loved nothing more than reading (especially when i should have been revising. Fortunately I have a memory that won’t quit so it didn’t destroy my chances). I played a lot of D&D so had shelves of Weis and Hickman, Forgotten Realms, Drizzt Do’urden. I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay, Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, Asimov and others courtesy of my father’s book shelves.

Then I stopped reading – mainly because I had people around me who frowned upon my reading material and I totally internalised their moral panic.

I read pretty much nothing except non-fiction until I was in my early 20s and rediscovered fiction. By that time I had completed my PhD in theoretical physics and, honestly, SFF bored the hell out of me. I couldn’t get past the crap (ranging from mcguffin through to ‘you really don’t understand this at all, do you) science in most SF. I’ve grown. I don’t care about your science now – I’m interested in other things.

No. After 7 years of reading philosophy, mathematics, theology and economics I discovered I wanted nothing more than to read contemporary literary fiction. Fury by Salman Rushdie, The South American Trilogy by Louis De Berniere and my all time favourite book – the Master and Margerita.

Why? Not because they’re inherently better but because they did this thing: they explored ideas and talked about subjects I had no other outlet with which to explore what was burning in my heart. I remember reading the Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills and House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski and realising fiction could do something great and profound. It could change who I was.

I was also discovering who I was as a person (I’m a venerable 45 now so being in my 20s was literally 20 years ago). I realised after talking to a Black friend that I’d spent most of my first 20 years of life trying to be white. Which obviously hadn’t worked for me. I realised I didn’t have to be ashamed of being brown – except brown people spent quite a lot of time telling me I wasn’t brown enough.

I realised I’m what you might call Liminal. At the time I was under the impression that my multiple heritages included Indian, English, Irish, French, Italian, Polish and Jewish. The largest components being Jewish and Indian. It’s since, in the last year, turned out I have no Jewish ancestry, nor Italian, but instead have Ukrainian Roma and Egyptian to swap those out with. Yes, it’s a long story involving the Shoah and prejudice and hidden histories which only came to light as that generation died. But I digress.

I didn’t return to SFF for a couple of reasons. The writing largely bored me – at least the stuff I was coming across. Compared to Hilary Mantel or Haruki Murakami or Jose Saramago or Anthony Burgess they were but pale imitations of what fiction can achieve. But. And it’s a big but. There’s a second reason lurking underneath this difficulty in finding a connection with a subject matter that, if left alone, I get terribly excited about.

I never saw myself on the page. Fantasy seemed to be almost addicted to the prince fighting for their kingdom or a chosen one, someone with special blood doing what no one else could (why always with this bullshit?). Not only could I not understand why anyone would write romantic peans to the divine right of kings when that kind of thinking is demonstrably bad for our personal agency and for civic society but as someone with more heritages than tv channels growing up, I really couldn’t see myself in their shoes. I am NEVER going to be the chosen one. And socially? It seemed (because I had no one to educate me) that it was socially retrograde beyond just lamenting our loss of kings with absolute power. Now, looking back, I know there was more out there, but those exceptions only prove the rule for me. Fandom and fantasy writers alike were (and still are in many respects) backward looking socially. There are obviously great exceptions to this now but I’m not wasting my time listing my caveats – especially when I have entire posts about those great writers elsewhere on this site.

So what brought me back to reading SFF? Because I literally stumbled upon writers who conveyed something different. Adam Roberts, Jeff Vandermeer, Hilary Mantel (again. Check out Beyond Black or Fludd if you want to see a master at work), Peter Watts, Hannu Rajaniemi, Lavie Tidhe, Octavia Butler, Vikram Chandra, Ann Leckie and Kelly Link.

What was eye opening? They talked about experiences I had, they were concerned with struggles I knew. And the ideas! Oh the ideas.

I still didn’t engage with fandom. Honestly I didn’t really know it existed.

Then I started getting my own work published and, as part of that, started attending cons. Nineworlds was my first and I was wonderfully buddied there by long time friend David Thomas Moore. It was a wonderful experience as my first con. I’m fortunate in that I’m not particularly shy and spend most of my working life negotiating/networking, so I don’t generally feel nervous about being in places where I don’t know people. Add to that an upbringing where i moved something like 7 times before university meant I’ve lots of experience of being on the outside looking in.

However, for the most part I made some great friends there and then even more at my first FCon. People like the incomparable Rehema Njambi, Mike Brooks, Tade Thompson, Anna Stephens, Peter McLean, Adrian and Annie Tchaikovsky and Anna Smith Spark just to mention those I remember from my early days at these things. (Also Frog Croakley and Penny Reeves who were tequila buddies when we all should have known better). I found people like me and it was glorious.

Now I’ve come into fandom late. I’m a fairly intimidating looking middle aged straight man and one whose accustomed to wielding actual power in my every day life. So I’m not easily phased by micro-aggressions. I’m also not generally ready to put up with bullshit and I will and have intervened where I see it.

Honestly, most of the people I’ve come across – be they super stars of kindness and creativity like Alasdair Stuart or fiery and righteous people like Farah Mendelsohn – are people I want to be like, people I want to impress because they impress me. They’re people who I want to be around. And I *think* most of fandom is like that on a day to day basis.

However. It’s also got a decent share of utter arseholes. People who think they are empowered as gatekeepers (and might actually be) when they have no right to that power. It’s got people who think mixed race characters have no place in fiction, that women can’t write, that we should be celebrating ‘old school’ fiction where ‘men were men’. It’s got people who’ll brigade new authors they don’t like (I won’t go over my own ample -ve experiences of being an author; I’ve documented them elsewhere) because they’re women or BIPOC or whatever other ugly and spurious degree of separation they believe makes them invalid.

But worse than that, and backed up by proper research, is the fact that toxic fandom has publishing on its side. You may think that’s not true and I love you my dear summer child. The stats are clear – publishing is a white industry. The books published are, largely, by white people. And the deafening silence from the vast majority of publishers on these issues is damning.

I work for an investment bank and we’ve made more noise and taken more actual substantive actions to change our composition and structure. We, the bastions of capitalism. It may be self-serving but then if it’s self-serving for us…how much more so for an industry like publishing which on the face of it wants to be seen as progressive far more than finance.

If you have a toxic publishing industry then you will have a toxic fandom because both are predicated on structures which permit and bake into the very nature of the system these kinds of outcomes.

And you know what? I’m nervous about writing this boldly about publishing. I’m trying to sell my books and I love SFF. There is a fear in my gut that speaking clearly about the issues here, in calling them out, I damage my agent’s ability to sell my work, that I alienate readers and editors, salespeople and marketers. I want to write about slavery, about rebellion, about ordinary people doing remarkable things, about being liminal, about being Black, Indian, outside, about power and about the long tail of colonialism. I want to write about hope, about how we can make a difference. You and I. Together.

This kind of self-censorship is one I can sidestep because I have a job that pays the wages. I work as hard on my writing as anything else I do but I won’t starve if I never sell another book. I come from a position of being someone who doesn’t need this to live (despite desperately wanting to get my stories out there).

But the fear is there.

We can complain about toxic fans, about vile gatekeepers and horrendously absorbed old guard. Yet they occupy a space the system has made and the rest of us can get angry about it but while the system remains 97% white (and middle/upper class at that) then there’s very little that will change deep in the bones. As I said in my article on diversity in publishing, 3 British PoC authors in the UK’s most prestigious SF award is all the evidence you need of institutional racism.

I’m hoping the results of that work are being discussed behind closed doors because they’re not being discussed by the industry where someone like me can see them…

So am I surprised that powerful people in fandom and the industry are facilitators of toxicity? No. Is it my fandom? Not in a million years.

if you want, I’ll be over here geeking out about She Ra, The Memory Police, The Light Brigade, Cage of Souls and Fast Color. Come join me and let’s have some fun.

A way to engage and fight

I see a lot of stuff on twitter and facebook. My instagram’s a little cleaner as I curate it more. However, there’s a lot of rage inducing stuff and I was thinking about how I might be able to resist some of the horrible racist and transphobic bullshit I’m seeing out there without providing it a platform and the fresh air of publicity.

I was also shocked to see how the National Trust was, just this week, gamed by a group of white racists into making an otherwise unremarked and stupid action into a well publicised generator of outrage allowing them to harm both the National Trust as an organisation and those who objected to their actions.

So, below is my entirely fallible guide to resistance without being co-opted by people who’d rather you didn’t exist.

  1. Remember, where the argument is one of existential importance you don’t have to agree to disagree and you don’t have to try to find common ground. There is no common ground with those who would rather you didn’t exist.
  2. If you have the emotional energy then educate but if you don’t. WALK AWAY rather than engage.
  3. Call on your allies to engage on your behalf. There’s no shame and ever bit of amazingness in having those who love and support you come to stand between you and those who don’t. In old fashioned terms it’s called Intercession and it’s a powerful concept. It literally means to stand between. In fact…

Allies. Please, intercede. I rarely need saving from my enemies, especially on the internet, but I often need them to see I’m not alone. (I also need to see that as well – it’s saves my mental health). I need you to step up and say ‘no’ to those who are hateful, full of bad faith or just delighting in ‘whataboutisms’. Sometimes I need you to step up and do the emotional labour for me and other times I need you to be the one who’s patient with the well intentioned ignoramus who might be an ally if someone will spend the time. I often don’t have the time or the patience but if you can do it for me I and they will be forever grateful

  1. Don’t give oxygen to the enemy. This is different to 1. People will often say something to provoke a reaction, to provoke allies into leaping in, outraged. Don’t. Ignore them, mute them, block them. (Report them first). Every time we give an arsehole oxygen a rainbow turns to shit. The world doesn’t need to hear more about their views in order to understand they’re wrong and, frankly, the more we spread them about, the more people get used to them. Please avoid normalising their bullshit. My thoughts here are that we can tell one another to go look at something if we think it needs verifying or action actually needs to be taken, but most of the time there’s no justification for sharing it. It encourages stupid algorithms to increase the exposure that kind of content gets and lets them see us upset and outraged. Screw them and the racist/hatred filled horse they rode in on.
  2. Don’t fight alone. Again, different to 3. This is hard but super important. Remember to take care of yourself. Sometimes this means walking away but many times it means finding your support network, letting them know what’s going on, getting the emotional pain/rage/discord out of your soul and then re-engaging.
  3. Find good news. Share it. Tell stories of love, hope, victory and triumph. Of course share our sadness and rage, but we’re not them. We want a world which sees people love one another for exactly who they are, which doesn’t seek to control their expression of who they are or tell them they’re worth less. So where we see that happening? Let’s celebrate what is good.
  4. Finally and the most challenging (at least for me). Accept we’re all going to be doofus’s from time to time. Accept that we’re going to get it wrong and take it on the chin. Apologise, learn and move on. We’re all of us flawed beings and we all need one another’s acceptance and that acceptance is most needed when we get it wrong. Otherwise we end up fracturing into ever smaller and more vulnerable tribes at war with one another as much as with those who’d rather we didn’t exist. For me it’s about being gentle without losing the ability to call another out (or being called out myself). It’s about asking for stuff to stop without it being personally damaging or full of hatred.

That’s it. Peace out and love you all. Down with the nazis, Black Lives Matter, Trans women are women and trans men are men.

The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

The alternative Non-fiction authors list

So this has been a challenge. I’ve struggled – realising a little about my preferences for non-fiction and, frankly, the absolute dearth of mainstream non-fiction by POC that isn’t somehow about race or the impact of colonialism. I probably need to say that when I think of non-fiction I don’t mean self help or biography. I mean either skirting the academe or thoroughly enmeshed within it. I mean philosophy, science, mathematics, history etc.

I googled ‘author’ for the picture for this post…the entry is a white male…because of course it ****ing is. However, this isn’t a post where I rant about the racist skew of search engines. It’s not even a post where I rant about how the academe is basically skewed towards white people (men) or how we can lament how it’s easier for a white person to get commissioned to write about non-white issues than it is for those being written about. For instance, I can’t/won’t write about Henrietta Lack’s because it’s a white person who was entrusted to write her story (even if, hint, hint, you should totally read it).

I promised a list of non-white authors who wrote non-fiction I, personally, think you need to encounter. Some of this is inevitably about race and empire but much of it is not.

Man, beast and zombies by Kenan Malik

There ain’t no black in the union jack by Paul Gilroy

Life on the Edge: the coming age of quantum biology by Jim Al-Khalili

Why I stopped talking to white people about race by Renni Eddo Lodge

I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou

Orientalism by Edward Said

The Emperor of all maladies by Siddartha Mukherjee

What young India wants by Chetan Bhagat

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami

New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Lastly, and because he had a massive impact on my life: The wretched of the earth by Franz Fanon

Why identity matters to us all but may stop you selling your stuff to others

My last three long works have, or are going to feature a multiplicity of genders, races and that’s by design. On the completed side, there’s a hard science fiction novella featuring an all female cast and a novel with multiple sexual identities across the main characters. My current WIP is a long work – which is based in a society where gender fluidity is the norm and slaves are identified because they’re non-gendered.

I’m happy with these stories, love what they’ve allowed me to explore and I’ve deliberately chosen to construct them in this manner.

I’ve adopted this approach because I want to tell stories with these characters at the heart of what I’m writing – to explore their challenges and, in no small part, to allow me to work through the issues such ideas bring up. I’m not preaching to anyone about it and, to be honest, I’ve worked pretty hard to make these characters meaningful in their own sense – so that it’s not a side show that all the characters are female, or that there are people of every skin colour present. They’re there because they are – not to make a point, not to fulfil a stereotype or satisfy an agenda.

Yet this week, as I prepared for a number of panels in the upcoming FCon, I was reminded by one of the panel members as they discussed their experience of the world of publishing, just how hard it is to get from the word on the page to the audience. Furthermore, just how much hostility there is for all of the ideas I’m loving writing about. Homophobia, transphobia, plain old racism and deeply rooted sexism and misogyny appear to be present at almost every gate to getting stories out there (except self-publishing, because then you can just get on with it).

There’s a reason why non-white people are voted off Strictly and it’s the same reason why marketing people are wary of stories that are going to exclude possible audiences – because it hurts sales. It’s collusion with those forms of oppression – collusion with those ignorant hateful attitudes for sure, but it’s something else too.

Poor sales mean businesses stop making money and then people lose their jobs and whatever progressive hopes and ideas they had lose their channel into the public debate.

You can hate gatekeepers because they are the unwilling (I hope) face of society’s wider nastiness – they’re the people we see – the casting agents wanting young beautiful (by their standards) women to portray having sex with maverick older white men as the dominant picture of success. Literary agents who only want fantasy stories about the orphaned wunderkind who comes along to ‘magic/assassin/mythical’ school and beats everyone at their own game and changes the world within a context of hetero-normative relationships and maintaining the status quo of those in power…again.

Yet they are just that – gatekeepers – they understand the calculus and often, regardless of their personal preferences, are completely powerless to affect any change.

Do I wish they were braver? Of course I do (and the completed works of my own I’ve listed above have found homes), but when being brave gets your head chopped off does that have any point? Sometimes I think yes – better to resist fascists than capitulate. However, other times I think better to make small compromises on the promise of making the other side move at the same time. Sometimes not ceding the floor is the right thing to do just as much as sometimes you have to rip the other side’s face off or die trying (metaphorically of course, although I’m a sword fighter…so…I think it’s probably ok to punch nazis since they want to stuff me in a gas chamber).

I’m not going to stop writing stories with themes that I’m passionate about – with characters that I deliberately want to see from all edges of society who aren’t secretly super powered divinely ordained kings of old (which is why, incidentally The Last Jedi is brave enough to kick your faces in – who the hell wants to discover the galaxy’s fate is actually in the hands of a divinely chosen single fricking family??? I thought we were done with divine right…right?)

However, I think I need to acknowledge that many people out there aren’t going to want to read them – because I don’t judge my cis or trans characters. I don’t tell you that there’s a moral choice between hetero, homosexual or other identity. I’m interested in what those perspectives tell us about who we are for their own sake.

I wish I knew how to say this better. Sometimes people want to be homemakers. Sometimes they want to be part of a team and sometimes they want to self destruct. It’s these nuances that make writing (and living) so interesting. They don’t always fit in with the dominant narratives our society feeds us as ‘natural’ but screw that – shouldn’t we be questioning what we believe is natural, shouldn’t we approach our comfort zones and disrupt them? Isn’t that part of the point of fiction?

I hear the ‘I just want to be entertained’ argument a lot. Generally that’s code for ‘I want to escape to a fantasy that suits my prejudices’, which is of course why so many people hated TLJ – because it punctured the idea that maverick men can save the universe alone.

I’ve had this discussion with my kids – that films should make us FEEL something. That we should be wary of being manipulated by how other people tell stories but we should remain open to being moved to wonder, sadness, joy, despair and rage. Stories that deliver us out the other side having only confirmed our unspoken prejudices are, generally, unrepresentative and regressive (and I’ll debate that with you all day long) – stories that leave us washed out, excited, exhilarated, worried, scared, hungry and angry – those are the ones worth something.

I hope to write those stories. Sometimes I think I manage it. Regardless of that, I hope you can be brave enough to buy stories that aren’t obviously about people like you, that aren’t showing you nothing but a blurred out mirror with only the bits you like reflecting back.

Why? because then my friends who write together with those buy, market and publish those stories will be able to justify changing the world – because you’ll have done it first.

We need to talk about race

I’ve just finished the book that is the image for this post. It’s a book I read in one sitting today, sat on a plane that hasn’t gone anywhere because of unidentified baggage that needs to be removed…the sweet ironic serendipity of that occurrence is not lost on me.

It’s a book that’s given me some language for feelings and experiences I’ve had throughout my entire life – stuff that I’ve not been able to articulate properly, scenarios that I’ve entered into time and again and thought were perhaps unique to me. Turns out they and the feelings they provoke are not unique to me at all.

A little then on what’s going on from reading this book.

I grew up in a school where I was the only boy of colour. There was a Hindu girl called Aneeka. Later on there were a couple of other people of colour four/five years below me. When they arrived, the four of us were dragged into a new lunchtime club whose only participants were those of us who weren’t white. The person running it told me they’d written to my parents but hadn’t heard back. When I asked my mother about this she angrily responded that she didn’t want me going to it. I didn’t understand why then although I already thought it wasn’t relevant to me and didn’t go back for my own reasons. I experienced a lot of racial hostility growing up – not least from the kid next to me writing NF on everything I owned whenever he got the chance (I was clueless what it stood for and found it hilarious that he was so insistent on writing such nonsense on my pencil case, my skin, my books). I managed to avoid getting beaten up for being brown more than I got beaten up – most often I’d just start talking about how beating me up wouldn’t make them feel better and they often just walked away. Having said that it didn’t always work.

I didn’t know any other brown people, didn’t know anything about Indian culture – didn’t eat curry at home until I was 15 because my white father didn’t like it (except he did and ate it on the sly for years until my mother caught him…you can imagine the row that provoked, and the liberation afterwards. It’s almost comic now). I remember finding a book of racist jokes in the glove compartment of the car – not that the jokes were ‘racist’ the title of the sheets of paper with literally hundreds of racist one liners was ‘racist jokes’.

I remember the normal fights I had, the ones that are about growing up, about nothing more than being a boy, in school with lots of other people with hormones. But I also remember the calls of paki, nigger, twix, that I smelled of shit, of curry, that I should wash better because i was dirty.

I could go on.

I remember the people who were racist because of ignorance rather than hatred – those who thought my ‘eyes shined’, that my teeth were whiter because i was brown, that I must be able dance well or have a bigger penis. That they didn’t see me as brown or black, that they didn’t like blacks but I was ok, ‘not like them’. That I must know ‘XYZ because they’re one of your lot’ or that I’d be good at this subject because my lot are.

More recently I’ve also experienced the opposite – the people who wonder why I don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, who realise I’m a ‘coconut’ and stop talking to me. I’m not trying to virtue top-trump here, but I’m stuck in the middle. Belonging to neither side properly. Heck, I’ve got six different nationalities in me – the largest two being Jewish and Italian…not that racists realise they’ve got more than one reason to despise my very flesh for the crime of existing. Miscegenation is something most racists don’t realise I’m also the guilty product of. Quite where I’d be sent to if ‘sent home’ I don’t know…Poland maybe?

I also remember being friends with people, with having good times where it didn’t matter that I was brown. (I shudder to write that). Kids have a keen sense of difference but not context, so in many cases although they’re aware of the differences, they have no measure of significance – you’re different to me because you’ve got blue eyes, you’re smart, you’re rich and you’re brown – they’re all true and all unremarkable. I remember being punched out of nowhere in a pub and a dozen people standing up and surrounding me – letting the aggressor and their three mates know in no uncertain terms they’d better leave or end up in the ground. All while I stood there wondering what the hell had happened.

I was brought up in a home where race wasn’t talked about. It still isn’t. I think I’m probably fine with that at the moment.

Taking a look at myself in the light of this book I see how I’ve grown up trying to be safe – and I mean that literally – to build a life where I, Stewart, was unassailable. Where I could weather the hostility of public places like trains – such as people asking if I was sure I meant to enter first class.

I come at life therefore with the scars of not belonging, of having been rejected simply for existing. I think these lead to a certain set of triggers that I’m generally aware or and I believe that, most of the time, I’ve turned to strengths.

  • I find it hard to accept people lying to me. Maybe not uncommon and it’s something I can forgive but it’s also liable to induce blind rage in me because I experienced so many friends at school be friendly only to then use that friendship as a way of getting in with others by racially abusing me.
  • I expect not to be listened to – now, you might think I’m very well listened too, but I’m not talking about actuality here, I’m talking about what’s in my head. This is a subtle one – it’s the ‘why would we listen to you’ point. Now, I have a generally too high opinion of myself – but I think that desire to be smart, to know stuff, to be in control (oh so much control) comes directly from the desire to be safe from those who’d harm me.
  • I find it hard to be open about my insecurities – I find that I’m ready to read teasing as a personal attack more than others. I look at some of my best friends a observe how much they tease one another and I know people don’t tease me the same way and I wonder just how prickly I am because my default is to assume people want to hurt.
  • I find it hard to take sides. I am indifferent to conflict – at ease with it because I’ve experienced so much of it. This marks me out on its own. However I’m also an inveterate refuser to take sides and to hide the truth. I have experienced this only confirming my fears about being rejected because I have a tendency to test whether people want me for myself or because they want me on their ‘side’.
  • I have a sleeping anger (see above) – although part of that is a Hotston thing I see in all the members of my family. It’s a flash bang kind of anger and it really rarely shows itself. I’ve never, ever, entered into violence on the back of it, but it’s there and its horrible. I’ve used it to very positive effect throughout my life – whether negotiating big deals or dealing with bullies. Anger, on its own, isn’t a bad thing.
  • I’ve gotten used to caring about stuff most of my friends don’t care about (in the same visceral way). I have friends who care more if I swear than about the subject I’m swearing about – if you see what I mean? Their cares come from a place of such mundanity that they have literally no way of accessing the more primal, existential issues I find myself dealing with.

The above are the big, obvious ones. I find that the stuff Eddo-Lodge is writing about is so much more sub-surface. It’s the everyday micro-aggressions of white men and women who think they are the norm, that my colour is an exception, that I’m probably muslim, that I’m probably unsafe if I’m angry, and why am I angry anyway, why can’t I speak about my outrage in a calm, rational way? And if I can do that, it can’t be that serious after all can it? It’s the fact that racism is structural. That I always have to justify why it exists, to prove that people are being racist not just in themselves but also within their organisations. There are the times where because I’m so primed to see it that I’ve called it completely wrong (as my good friend Ned will testify over a specific event in Denmark many years ago). That moderates are the worst. That moderates think we should obey the law and everything will be ok…as if Stephen Lawrence was just an unfortunate event and not a sign of deeply rooted state sanctioned racism. That somehow there can be reverse racism…there can only be racism if power is involved, otherwise its simple, individual prejudice. Racism, in my mind at least, involved power, involves groups of people impacting others’ lives purely on the basis that they don’t like their appearance.

I am also aware of how few people respond to me when I bring these issues up. Of particular disappointment to me is how few Christians (and I am one, so not singling them out except that I am a part of that community) seem to have any awareness of the issues and, worse yet for me, any apparent care for them. This isn’t a post designed to have you come up to me and say any of the following by the way:

  • I’ve been meaning to talk to you
  • Sorry
  • I’m supportive

Mainly because a lot of people in my life are supportive and do talk to me about these things and humbly and humblingly try to work out how to walk this path with me – they’re just not Christians – which, as I say, is a particular disappointment.

I’m suddenly at 1700 words and realise I could write and write on this subject but I’m not sure I could shed any light. Eddo-Lodge’s book has made me realise that so many of the things that make me angry are about those tiny little actions that confirm you’re being judged on how you look. That these triggers can flip me over a table. They help explain why I’ve spent so much of my life driven to succeed – because I want to have enough to be safe. How sad is that – that I can’t be happy except that I think I’ve got enough buffers to be safe. I’ve read books on the holocaust and on slavery and how racism, fascism and the like grow from minor actions to ways of oppressing millions because ordinary people didn’t object. I look at those paths and see my own self sitting precariously exposed, the first in the line for if the majority decided those who weren’t white needed to suffer.

It’s why I mourned the brexit vote because it was driven by fear of the other for so many people, because it was a siren call to people who were closet racists to be more open about their hatred, to embolden them.

Britain is racist. Beyond the normal facts that we all harbour prejudices. It is structurally racist. Now – it’s so much better than almost every other country on earth – don’t get me wrong. BUT. I see in Eddo-Lodge’s book a reflection of myself that made me weep on the train home today, because I suddenly see that when I was angry because I was being singled out for being a trouble maker, or for refusing to conform to a white idea of normality, it was just that – because somehow I was resisting being turned into something I’m not. That it’s ok to be me.

I’ve been joking for some years with white friends of mine about my colour, openly talking about the skews against me and in their favour simply because they’re white. Many of them can now talk back to me about it – we’ve all been on a journey to where that’s possible. They’ve been respectful to me in that journey because none of us had the vocabulary to talk about it meaningfully when I first realised I needed to talk about the subject. It’s a difficult balance. I joke about it often because to challenge each and every instance in which I see those prejudices expressed would be exhausting beyond belief. Humour is a much easier and communal response even when I’m actually deprecating my own position. Fortunately, I’m a successful bruiser of a man who’s also pretty confident in who he is – so I can roll with it and be provocative and see fumbled attempts at entering that debate without losing my shit.

Ok, this is now officially too long for a blog post. You want to talk about this? Talk to me in person because this is important to me and I will make time for you 🙂

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