Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reviewing While White: A Tyranny of Petticoats

by Megan Schliesman

I like the concept of A Tyranny of Petticoats. This short story collection is subtitled “15 Stories of Belles, Bank Robbers & Other Badass Girls.” In her introduction, editor and contributor Jessica Spotswood writes: “I realized what I really wanted was to edit an anthology of stories about clever, interesting American girls throughout history written by clever, interesting (though not necessarily all American) women.” (p. x)
What’s not to love?
So yes, I like the concept, and in fact many of the stories, but I’m also struggling with how the theme is explored when it comes to racial and cultural diversity.

My first moment of unease came a bit later in the introduction. Spotswood states: “I suggested that we think diversely in terms of geography, historical eras, and our heroines’ races, sexualities, religions, and opinions on all manner of things.” So far so good. Then she goes on, “America is a melting pot. I hoped our fifteen stories could, in some small way, reflect that reality.” (p. xi)
The Tyranny of Metaphor
While there have been both critics and defenders of the term “melting pot” (and alternates, such as “salad bowl,” that have received some traction), reading it here was a disappointment. I understand the good intentions in using it, but  America—in present and in the past—is a place of vibrant diversity and complicated realities surrounding that diversity, and I think readers deserve explicit acknowledgment of this. “Melting pot” doesn’t begin to cover it.

But, ok. Melting pot.
There are fifteen stories in A Tyranny of Petticoats. Eight of the stories feature characters of color: five about African Americans, one about a Chinese American, one about Latinas, and one about a character referenced as “brown” with no development of this aspect of her identity. A ninth story is about a character who is Inuit. So, at first glance, promising when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity.
And yet, of the fifteen writers contributing to A Tyranny of Petticoats, only four of them, from what I’ve been able to determine, are women of color, and none of the contributors are from First/Native Nations. This is not nearly as diverse as I was hoping given the stated intent to reflect diversity. And while I don’t want to negate the diversity of voices that contributed to A Tyranny of Petticoats, the resulting diversity of stories across the collection was a strange, and at times unsettling mix.
Kekla Magoon, who is African American, wrote about an African American teen in “Pulse of the Panthers.” The other three contributors of color are of Asian Pacific heritage. Marie Lu wrote the story about the Inuit girl in Alaska. Caroline Tung Richmond and Y.S. Lee both wrote stories about White protagonists. The three remaining stories about the African Americans, the one story about the young woman who is “brown,” the one story about the Latinas, and the one story about the Chinese American, were all written by White authors. Of these, the story about the Latinas, the story about the Chinese American, and one of the stories about an African American (along with one story about a White character written by a White author) have supernatural/mystical elements. The story about the Native Alaskan has a spiritual element.
Let me be more specific:  The one representation of Latino culture in this anthology is a story about the three fates who are living out their current lives as three Mexican American sisters; the one representation of Chinese American culture is a girl who can see ghosts and commune with spirits; the opening story about an African American young woman who escaped enslavement with her father and is part of a pirate ship crew ends with her becoming a ghost of the sea; and the one representation of First/Native Nations cultures is an Inuit girl who saves herself from violent White traders with her own grit and some guidance from the Seal King.
One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
If I were reading an anthology of the extraordinary that goes beyond courage, grit, and fortitude—one in which mysticism, the supernatural, and perhaps spirituality were a clearly stated scope of the collection—I wouldn’t have been as unsettled, especially if that collection were broadly diverse in intent and specifically diverse in execution, and clarified its scope in terms of both spiritual beliefs and the fantastic (which are two very separate things). In such a collection, any representation of culture would, by nature of the overarching theme, be expected to include something supernatural or otherworldly and perhaps spiritual. I think of the marvelous collection Diverse Energies published by Tu Books/Lee & Low. It was intentionally diverse science fiction and fantasy and it felt (although I have no doubt it wasn’t) effortless.
But this is framed and clearly stated as historical fiction, and the inclusion of stories with supernatural, if not spiritual, elements was a strange choice to me. Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic. What am I to make of these stories? Are they grounded in any authentic cultural beliefs, or simply spun from their authors’ imaginations?  The same is true of the spiritual element in the Inuit story—is this drawn from cultural beliefs, or the author’s imagination? If it is “authentic,” there is also the question, as Debbie Reese recently noted, of whether it is in fact religious and whether including it might be considered sacrilegious.
There is an author’s note following each story and as a general rule they reveal the thought and inspiration that went into the tales. Following “El Destinos” [sic] Lesley Walton writes, “”I always found mythology to be a delicious combination of magic and humanity….I thought of all those times when one’s cultural and national identity seemed at odds, and I wondered what might it be like to be divine and yet, at the same time utterly human….suddenly I had Valeria, Rosa, and Maria Elana, three immortals sent down to live as Mexican American sisters during the years after the Texas annexation” (p. 83).  Marissa Meyer’s note for “Gold in the Roots of Grass” talks about her fascination with western history and the gold rush, and her joy in doing research, but gives no mention to the Chinese American content of the story (p. 185). In her note following “The Journey” Marie Lu writes of loving Julie of the Wolves and of researching Alaska, loving “the blurred line between history and Inuit folklore….the facts already feel magical” (p. 41). J. Anderson Coats writes of the Mother Carey legend that is part of the opening story, “Mother Carey’s Table,” and of the fact that “about 25 percent of sailors on pirate or privateer vessels were people of color” (p. 19).
One of the first things I pay attention to in any anthology is the diversity of contributors, whether or not diversity is in any way the point of the collection. If it lacks racial diversity, I’m more than just disappointed. I’m angry. Because to my mind, from where I’m standing in the twenty-first century, the creators of that anthology failed a major requirement in executing their vision, whatever that vision was. They have failed their vision and they have failed readers. I say this even if I read and like the stories or poems included.
The failure for me in A Tyranny of Petticoats is less clear-cut. There are marvelous stories in this collection, including Magoon’s “Pulse of the Panthers,” about an African American teen living in rural California whose view of the world expands when her family hosts a group of Black Panthers from Oakland in 1967; Y.S. Lee’s “The Legendary Garrett Girls,” about two White sisters tending bar and taking no crap on the Alaskan frontier in 1898; and “Pearls” by Beth Revis, in which a young White woman escapes Chicago and an unwanted marriage, finding independence and community both on the Wyoming frontier in 1876.  Two stories, “City of Angels” by Lindsay Smith, set in 1945 Los Angeles (featuring the character with “brown” skin), and “The Whole World Is Watching” by Robin Talley, set in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention and featuring an African American woman, have main characters who are lesbian.

Again, I don’t want to negate the diversity that exists in this collection. And I’m not suggesting that the answer to “Who can write what?” is to simply “Write what you know” because what a writer knows is not necessarily so easily defined nor is it static. But this anthology definitely fell short for me by not ensuring a broader range of diversity among the contributors. I think this contributed to serious gaps between idea and execution, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of the supernatural in half of the stories that are racially diverse. This is true regardless of the fact that I enjoyed many of the individual stories as pieces of fiction. This misplaced, mistaken exoticism in an anthology of historical fiction feeds into broader cultural stereotypes, and that is something I’m sure was never the intent of this anthology, or of the individual writers. But the “magical” person of color and the “spiritual” Native are, indeed, the dominant representation of racial and cultural diversity here.

There is a a second volume in the works, The Radical Element: A Tyranny of Petticoats 2. There are some wonderful authors already contributing--I hope even more diverse voices will be included. It is stated as being a mix of fact, fiction, and fantasy. I’ll also be curious to see how well those combined elements and the writers serve the stated theme of "young woman throughout history whose voices have been ignored too long."


Dahlia Adler said...

"From what I’ve been able to determine...none of the contributors are from First/Native Nations." - I can't speak to any of the other authors, but Lindsay Smith is pretty vocal on Twitter about being Cherokee, and though I'm still in the middle of the volume so haven't read her story yet (I'm part of round 2, so, saving the rest for when I need drafting guidance/inspiration!), I've definitely seen her say there that it's her first MC who shares her racial makeup.

Debbie Reese said...

Oh... wow. As I read your post from the top, Megan, and saw what you said about the melting pot, I cringed.

Then I read that Marie Lu wrote the story about an Inuit girl, I thought 'ok, I gotta get this... it could be one of those rare stories by an outsider that gets it right!" But then I read further and saw what she said "magical." Now I'm worried.

I'm guessing (based on what Dahlia Adler said) that Lindsay Smith's main character in "City of Angels," is Cherokee. Was that not mentioned in the story, Megan, or in the info the author wrote about that particular story?

I'll see if our local library has a copy.

Megan Schliesman said...

There was nothing in the "City of Angels" story that I picked up on identifying the character as Cherokee, Debbie, and nothing in the author's note or bio in the book that gave me that insight. Maybe it's there in the story but too subtle for me as an outsider to have noticed. (I did look at author web sites to try to determine more about them before writing. I didn't see anything on her site, but there isn't a lot of bio info about her on the site. Still, I might have missed it. Obviously not being on Twitter didn't help me here.)

I think everyone should ultimately read and decide about these stories and the book as a whole for themselves. It's possible Marie Lu did extensive research for her story--the note just gave me no sense of that.

Unknown said...

But this is framed and clearly stated as historical fiction, and the inclusion of stories with supernatural, if not spiritual, elements was a strange choice to me. Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic.

While I agree that outsider writers need to avoid sacrilege, as Debbie put it so trenchantly, I find myself unsure of what you mean here. You seem to framing realism as the genre default, while the inclusion of fantastic elements is "resorted to," and needs to be justified. Why? Is the issue that none of the stories about white girls used fantastic elements? If so, we're dealing with the equation of PoC with magic, and I see the problem there. But you don't mention whether or not the stories about white girls include fantastic elements. I don't see any inherent problem with including speculative fiction under the umbrella of historical fiction, speaking as someone who's written quite a bit of it. If it is limited to stories about PoC, that is obviously a problem, but I would have liked to have seen that specified.


Zoraida Cordova said...

Does an author have to self-identify in order for them to "count"? I find this discussion kind of upsetting considering most of the time you're "too ethnic" or "not ethnic enough."

Like, if my work is too *subtly* Hispanic, should I wave a flag... or repeatedly tell people what I am in order for my story to count?

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

I read one fantasy story in the collection with a white protagonist, "High Stakes," but it also had an enslaved African-American secondary character debased and under the control of evil forces. There were two excellent realistic stories with African-American protagonists -- Magoon's "The Pulse of the Panthers" and Elizabeth Wein's "The Color of the Sky." When I read that the author of "The Journey" was influenced by Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves, it gave me pause because that novel from the 1970s is a culturally problematic work that has become part of the canon. Culturally problematic works that join the canon tend to influence later works, thus perpetuating and highlighting the problematic elements as in a game of telephone. Furthermore, this body of canonical work crowds out more authentic stories, like those of Debby Dahl Edwardson (Blessing's Bead, My Name Is Not Easy), who is not herself Alaska Native but is married to an Iñupiat tribal leader and has lived for decades and raised seven children in his community in Barrow, Alaska. Her work deserves much more attention and awareness from this new generation of writers.

K T Horning said...

Zoraida, you raise important questions, especially in light of #OwnVoices. I hope you are given opportunities to write whatever you want whether it's "subtly Hispanic" or in-your-face Latina.

I went to your website and was able to find within one click that you were born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, that your first language was Spanish, and that you are more comfortable writing in English than in Spanish, although you are bilingual. So you did "wave a flag" -- on your website at least. These are obviously aspects of your own biography and identity that are important to you, whether they show up in your fiction or not.

But if an author doesn't identify herself or her character as Cherokee either in a parenthetical tribal affiliation after her name as is the custom, in biographical info on her book or website, or within the story itself, you can't blame a critic for missing it.
Did Megan assume the writer was White? Yeah, but that was based on reading the available biographical information, and the story itself. Perhaps aspects of the story will resonate with a Cherokee or Native reader that a White critic missed (here's where your subtlety comes in) but that remains to be seen.

Debbie Reese said...

Thanks, Megan. Our local library has the book. I'll get it, eventually. I'm 2nd or 3rd on the wait list.

This conversation has spilled over onto twitter in ways that don't make sense to me.

There, I see an assertion that a writer should not have to say who they are unless they choose to. Of course, there's no disagreement there.

There's also an assertion that #ownvoices are important. Again, there's no disagreement there.

But I'm not sure how these two assertions line up. If a writer is going to tell us a work is #ownvoices, don't we need to know what that identity is? I'm assuming the one under discussion is a Native one, but maybe it isn't.

I would love to know more about Lindsay's work for kids/YA. I added several people there recently. Some are enrolled members/citizens of federally recognized nations; others are enrolled members/citizens of state recognized nations; some are from First Nations (Canada).

Zoraida has a point. Writers have a hard time from publishers who say their work isn't ethnic enough. Native writers get that a lot. If their characters don't have feathers and fringe and a wise grandma, it isn't seen as "Indian" enough. That is messed up, but it didn't happen in this review. Megan does excellent background work.

And a huge YES to what Lyn says about Debby Dahl Edwardson's excellent books. If you haven't read MY NAME IS NOT EASY, get it as soon as you can!

Debbie Reese said...


The "there" in my comment is the gallery of Native writers and illustrators:


Anonymous said...

Hi all - I want to point everyone to Vicky's Smith's great and timely article in Kirkus yesterday: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/unmaking-white-default/#continue_reading_post

Some of it is very applicable to the conversation happening here. Vicky talks about the awkwardness of naming whiteness, and the fear (and inevitability) of getting things wrong sometimes, which Megan and KT have both acknowledged in their comments as well.

Hannah Sophie said...

Really great review and interesting discussion here!

Just one small correction: DIVERSE ENERGIES, the anthology of diverse dystopian short stories that Megan refers to, was published by Tu Books/Lee & Low Books, not Tor.


Reading While White said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Hannah; fixed!

mclicious said...

Might I also point out that the book has numerous errors in Spanish spelling? It's lazy and inexcusable, since it requires about ten seconds of effort to look up how words are spelled. I can't speak to the Chinese elements, but to me the Latina story felt incredibly stereotypical and awkward - I can't tell you how tired I am of people who don't speak Spanglish messing up the poetics and the rhythm of it. So even the diverse elements have work to do, and that's before you get into the whole fantasy thing.

I would say that it's more magical realism than straight up fantasy in the stories, though it is troubling. Disney, for example (and many other companies, but they're the prominent ones and an easy example), has this cognitive block when it comes to PoC and, when they do manage to portray them, find it absolutely impossible to imagine that they might exist in fantasy worlds (the way Jeremy Whitley does with Princeless) and is only able to place them in the real world and add some magical elements, like Tiana in New Orleans. So it's interesting to note how this collection uses PoC as magical beings (because we know that all Negroes are magical and all Natives are spiritually tied to the earth, right? sigh) but still situates them in the real world, which may be because of the historical elements but is probably also tied to the idea that entirely fantastical worlds are only for white people.

annata said...

I find the discourse on racial and ethnic diversity and equality in this country totally puzzling and spelling disaster. It seems to me that true equality and diversity is about quality, not about percentage representation or the like. A good musician is a good musician, and a good writer is a good writer. We value them for that, not for whether they are black, white, red, yellow or whatever. The very drive for identifying people as one or the other and putting them in boxes seems to me degrading. When I first heard Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, I did not care if Miles Davis was black or white. Neither do I care what is a writer's origin. Why would we penalize good writing for being of "white" origin? Why would you want an anthology of writing on any topic, or organized by any other criteria, to have some proportional representation of race or ethnicity? And how would you factor in and identify the multicultural, multiethnic writers? Or what about a seemingly black writer who might have a white identity - actually, this is not a theoretical question about a fictional person. I do know a young woman, aspiring writer, who has an African- American biological father, but grew up in the care of her single European white mother, and had no contact with her fathers' family. Do you think she identifies with black culture? Would you imagine her writing from a black person perspective? There is so much stereotyping in all of this "diversity" discussion. Every individual is unique...this is the real diversity. Stop internalizing white feelings of guilt and compensating for them by perverting anything - from book reviews to dinner conversations - by viewing it through colored lenses. True vision is obtained through colorless lenses.

Anonymous said...

To "Unknown" (June 6, 2016 at 5:47 PM) -

Please do not use the terms "red" or "yellow" to describe people. These are dehumanizing slurs.

As to the question you pose about the Black woman raised by a White mother--I will not speak for her, and neither should you.

You are advocating for a colorblind approach, but studies have shown over and over that such approaches do not work, and in fact unintentionally erase people's experiences of oppression. I will point you to our FAQ page, our resources page, and to this collection of studies:
http://www.childandfamilymentalhealth.com/families-and-society/talking-with-kids-about-diversity-helping-children-to-thrive-in-a-multicultural-world/ which found:

"Many well-meaning parents are concerned that pointing out differences will lead to prejudice. But research suggests the opposite; even young children notice differences in skin color the same way they see the differences in hair and eye color, height and weight and gender. Studies suggest that parents who speak openly about differences such as skin color and heritage, and openly encourage friendships with children from different backgrounds, can have a major impact on their children’s attitudes and their ability to get along with others."