Months ago (a year ago?), information was released on the new series of books by J.K. Rowling set in the Harry Potter universe, but this time focused around America and it’s particular history. I am appalled by the way this new franchise is being delivered, and my disappointment has grown each time a new bit of information has come out. Most recently, Pottermore, a website devoted to the Harry Potter fandom, released a quiz where any wizarding world lover can find out which American house they belong to, whether it be Pukwudgie, Wampus, Horned Serpent (Unktehi or Uktena), or Thunderbird. Ever since this quiz came out, my Facebook and Twitter feed have been crawling with people posting the results of the quiz, identifying which house and which symbol belongs to them, and overall trivializing the significance of these characters.
You see, both Thunderbird and the Horned Serpent are considered by many people to be gods. Thunderbird is the caretaker of the heavens and the Horned Serpent is the caretaker of the underworld. I don’t mean that people used to think this, such as in the case of Zeus and Hades (exception: pagans, but not really comparable), I mean these stories and belief are presently essential aspects of our origins. This isn’t mythology to many of us, they are living, breathing things, relevant to the here and now. Thunderbird is probably one of the most recognized characters across indigenous America. Thunderbird carries significance from the Kwakwaka’wakw in the Pacific Northwest to the Lakota of the Plains to the Algonquin of the East Coast and even my own people in the Southwest have stories about Thunderbird! It would be comparable if she had written East Indian houses named Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Durga. It would be comparable if she wrote another story but her houses were Mary, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and God, the Father. The previous Harry Potter houses were named for different animals, a Lion, a Snake, a Raven, and a Badger. These animals were quite generic. One could argue that instead of a lion, that a Griffon was the mascot of Gryffindor, but even that myth is suitably generic and is not tied to present day marginalized cultures.
When these house symbols were first announced, there was a massive response from the American and Canadian indigenous communities, calling out to Rowling about the mistakes that she had made, and generously suggesting that she should change the direction she was going. The community even offered up their own experience and wisdom. We offered to try and help so that she could still write a story that involved the indigenous past of the Americas in her wizarding world. But these pleas fell on deaf ears. In the past, Rowling has jumped to defend homosexuality and blackness, even proclaiming that Hermione was a black heroine all along (or at least indicating this). Rowling has made some mistakes, but more often than not, has appeared to be a great white ally, and indeed I have often spoken of her reverentially and the way in which she caught up a generation in reading and writing that had never been done before. Normally she is very easy to reach on social media and quick to respond to questions. But this time, she chose to ignore the indigenous community. This time, she did not care.
J.K. Rowling is a perfect example of white inneffectualism among writers. This is something that plagues the writing community that I am a part of, so I end up seeing it and being forced to confront it on a daily basis. A few weeks ago I made a comment about white inneffectualism that was met with some confusion, so I thought I would write this post to explore it. As I have come to understand it, the term inneffectualism was coined to mark the opposite of exceptionalism, particularly when exceptionalism is being claimed by the subject (I’m the greatest!). If the U.S. claimed that they had the best education system in the world, but in reality it ranked as one of the lowest, this would be a claim of exceptionalism that was, in reality, just American inneffectualism. I was asked if this term was related to white mediocrity, and I would say that it is, but mediocrity tends to be used to describe when someone claims to be exceptional, but is just average. Inneffectualism is worse than just being average, it is actively doing harm through the claim of exceptionalism.
I live in an extremely white, polarized, and supposedly liberal part of the country: the Pacific Northwest. Racism here isn’t screamed in your face, it’s held below the counter, pointed at your vitals. It masquerades so well as politeness and fairness, that it is ten times more dangerous (in a socially ruinous way) to confront it, because those without the ability to see the it’s subtleties will think you are calling out nothing, or that your motives are less than pure, and deride you for it. I have had this experience time and time again. Some people call this microaggressions, but I think that definition is a little too simplistic to explain what the culture of racism in the Pacific Northwest looks like.
None of this stuff is really new. I’ve spoken to it plenty of times before with perhaps the exception of a more in-depth look at what I am talking about when I say “white inneffectualism” and now I have the opportunity to give you a beautiful (horrible) example of white inneffectualism at play. What I’ve been building up to talking about here is my experience at my first official writer’s conference. Writer’s conferences are a big deal when you are trying to get published. They give you wonderful opportunities to network with other, established authors, agents who are interested in your work, and publishers who might potentially pay you for it. On top of that, there are usually some great workshops to help you improve your craft, or else introduce you to new ideas that you may not have previously been exposed to.
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Last month I had an amazing opportunity, one which, despite my coming criticisms, I was very grateful for. The college I attend thought of me when it found it had extra tickets to the Chuckanut Writers Conference. This is the sixth year that the Chuckanut Writers Conference has existed, and since its inception I have dreamt of going, often reading the schedule with yearning. Since it is the first official Writer’s Conference I have attended, I don’t have another I can really compare it to, but if I compared it to Norwescon (which is not, strictly speaking, a Writer’s Conference, but really does act like one in a big way), it costs nearly eight times more to attend. So when I was gifted a ticket, I was delighted.
I also attended with a good friend of mine, Monica Cole, who keeps her own blog. You can read her take on the conference here.
So let’s get to the meat of this post.
The Chuckanut Writers Conference
Monica and I got there early-ish and we decided to hit up a breakout session called “How to get the most out of your conference.” By and large, this session was fine. It gave you some tips on socializing and networking and pitching, and there were a lot of introductions. I got a little peeved when one lady practiced her novel pitch and proclaimed it to be a novel about an unknown Native American tribe called the Northern Ute (I don’t know why she thinks the Northern Ute are unknown. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure they’re the biggest Ute tribe. Maybe it’s just more of the whole “native people are invisible when you’re white” thing). I was interested because of her subject, and she did mention that she was talking with tribal members to write her story, which is always a positive thing when I hear it (I hear it so rarely). But then she said that the story was going to be told from the perspective of a white woman who loves the Ute culture and joins the tribe. Okay, well. I hope I don’t need to explain the issue there. I get tired of reiterating 101 stuff all the time. Anyway, I tried not to let this colour my emotions too much. It was just one person reading on pitch, right?
I did notice while we walked around that although I am fifteen years older than Monica, we were two of the youngest people there. The average age, as I saw it, was probably 55-65. There were about five people of colour at the entire conference that I could see (maybe there were more, a couple of white passing, who knows?) and judging by how people were dressed, I’m guessing that the attendees leaned toward middle/upper-middle class. Also, in that session where everyone practiced their pitches…I think all but one were memoirs (which tend to be focused around an older crowd, for both writers and readers).
That’s fine, I think. I can still get a lot out of this convention. I want to know more about the attending agents. Well, I read that there are two, and the deadline to get a pitch session with them was before I knew I had a ticket, and neither of them accept fiction. That’s okay, I’m still going to enjoy myself. The sessions will be great. Maybe I will meet some interesting authors that I can befriend on the interwebs.
The opening keynote speech is by Claire Dederer, who I’ve never read because I don’t usually read memoirs. I might read Claire. Her speech was great. It was mostly about encouraging people to write despite struggles, setbacks, fear. It was meant to be encouraging, and it was. I also spoke with Claire later and we talked about Joy Division, the Misfits, and the Dead Kennedy’s. She seemed great.
The first “breakout session” was led by Roberto Ascalon, a Seattle-based poet with a Filipino background. I’ve written poetry, even won awards for it. I don’t necessarily consider myself a poet. Rather, the reason I attended this session is because it was called “Race, poetry, and the color line.” I was intrigued, especially since I was already feeling a little overwhelmed by how white this conference was. Four of the five PoCs I could identify at the conference were there. One was Roberto and another was me. Another was a young writer who I would befriend later, but we’ll get to that. Roberto started the session by highlighting some titles that he felt people should read, including Citizen and Between the World and Me, so again—some 101 stuff, though if you haven’t read these books and you’re reading my blog, it would benefit you greatly to do so. Then he had us work on an exercise in which we recalled the first time we were aware of our race. He wanted us to write about that moment, but not just the event that influenced the awakening, but what was going on. Sights, smells, sounds, clothes worn, etc. It was hard for me, because it was a very long time ago. I was very young. The words did eventually flow, but I can’t be certain at how exactly accurate they are. They do exist that way in my memory, though. (I’ll include what I wrote at the end of this post). Finally, he asked us to stand in a circle and read parts of what we had written down to each other. He emphasized that we were in a safe space, and because of that, we should respect words that others might be particularly sensitive to, such as racial slurs, even though he recognized they would be part of people’s stories. I accepted this and prepared to try and talk about a story in which my mother was cursed and had a slur used against her. I was trying to think of the best way to describe the slur without being hurtful to people. Others began reading their work. They were interesting. Although Roberto had asked that people not focus on the races of others in their stories, the majority of white people seemed to recognize their race when compared to black people. It was very different for the PoCs stories, but those aren’t necessarily mine to tell. Eventually the white woman to my right began to speak. At first, she talked about her childhood, but quickly I noticed her accent began to change into something that was stereotypically “black” and racially charged in its association with that whole shuck and jive kind of accent. She then started to tell a story of when she first realized that she had a “black soul” and was actually black despite her “cursed” white skin.
I was numbed. I was supposed to the next person to speak. I hesitated a long time because I wasn’t sure if someone was going to speak up, or if I should. I was still in the head space of when my mother was verbally assaulted and how it made me feel and I felt sick. I was sickened by the memory I was in. I was sickened by this woman who had just been grossly racist, but was allowed to be while I had to censor my story. When I spoke, it was quiet, and in a restrained, choked voice. I wanted to speak with more power, but I was reeling from what had just happened. I quickly left and tried to focus on the good that had come from this session (and this session was good…it was the woman who was not). I could not tell you how other people reacted. No one called her on it, but I had tunnel vision and wanted to escape the space at that particular moment.
After that we had another keynote speech from Erik Larson who largely talked about what tools he used to write well. Great. No problems. Normal writer stuff as far as I could tell.
The second/last session of that first day was with Stephanie Kallos, who is going to be at the center of this harrowing tale. Now, the title of that session was something wishy-washy but basically it was comparing the writer’s journey to the journey of the salmon. Now, I’m not a Coast Salish/PNW native, but salmon are still sacred, and I understand that, and living here I try to venerate salmon. I’ve partaken in the Lummi First Salmon Ceremony – they’re not my rituals and customs, but I honour them. So I was interested in this because of the approach I take to storytelling, and was hoping to learn something sacred from this session.
But I had a hard time. It was all over the place. I’m not sure Stephanie knew exactly where she was coming from, or maybe she was hoping to seem mystical if she hid what we were talking about long enough. Ultimately I was able to piece something out of this session, but it was not really with her help. She never mentioned salmon throughout the whole session. I walked out feeling like it was just a poor presentation from a flaky writer – nothing deeper than that.
Day two blew this all out of the water.
Monica and I started with a session that was talking about “The Tao of writing daily.” We didn’t actually talk about it at all, because the presenter spent 40 minutes out of 45 minutes allowing every person in attendance to introduce themselves. I mean, I already try to do daily writing, and know a lot of tips and tricks to make it happen, so while I didn’t necessarily miss anything, I still feel like it was a bum deal considering the cost most people paid for the conference.
Then there was the session “How to keep them hooked” which talked largely about hooks, but as panels tend to, it got tangential a bit. Nevertheless, I’ll say that I got some great information out of this, and I’m particularly impressed with Bharti Kirchner (I bought her novel, Goddess of Fire, and am currently reading it). Bharti was the fifth, and final, identifiable PoC at the conference.
Stephanie Kallos and an Author’s Bill of Rights
This was the second-to-last keynote speech and this was where it all went under water. Before I go into it, here is the short description that was in my booklet about this keynote speech.
“Storytelling is a practice of compassion. It is not only an author’s right but an obligation to walk in the shoes of others. One earns the right to tell a story outside one’s personal experience (be it one involving a Holocaust survivor, a Nazi, the parent of a child with low-functioning autism, someone of a different sexual orientation or race, etc.) by using imagination to connect – with integrity, as authentically and deeply as possible – to those whose stories one seeks to tell.”
Alright, so for anyone who is particularly astute there are a few warning signs in this, and I was certainly astute enough to notice them, but I focused on what I felt the main thrust was intended to be – that storytelling is a practice of compassion. It is, and I think that in reality, you can tell stories of people who are not you, who come from different experiences and cultures, so long as you commit to writing those stories with compassion. That means you have to think about how these stories will affect the people you are writing about. It means you have to listen to the people you are writing the stories about. It means you have to spend time with them. Live beside them. Be in their world. Compassion means that you are able to empathize, and you cannot empathize if you cannot understand. That is what I believe, but here’s how Stephanie’s speech went.
She started by telling us a story of an experience she had at a writer’s retreat where presentations were given by some of the writer’s, including one whom she only called “The Narcissist” (and continued and continued and continued to call her this). The gist of her experience was that “The Narcissist” said that authors don’t have the right to tell stories about people who they did not identify with, and in this case, holocaust victims/Jewish people were primarily what she was discussing. From what I could understand this was a Jewish person who did not appreciate non-Jews writing about a, to put it mildly, painful Jewish experience.
Stephanie mocked this person, talking about how poorly their book sold. Stephanie mocked this person, calling them a narcissist repeatedly. Stephanie mocked this person for being stupid and foolish. Interspersed with her mockery of this unnamed author, she blithely mentioned writing with compassion once or twice, but by and large her message was this: you have a right, as an author, to write whatever the fuck you want. You can’t let millennials intimidate you into not writing. You can’t let Jews intimidate you into not writing. You can’t let homosexuals intimidate you into not writing, and the list goes on. Now, keep in mind, I’ve already mentioned this. There were, as best I could tell, five people of colour at this conference. When I noticed the direction Stephanie’s speech was going to (I don’t know, 250 people?) I looked around for them. I didn’t see Ascalon anywhere. I noticed Kirchner walk out in the middle of it. I noticed one of the other PoCs, who looked like they might be crying, also walk out (this was the person who I later met up with and befriended, I thought about adding more from her perspective but decided it wasn’t my place, and there’s plenty from mine). I was enraged, but I chose to stay, I was rapidly jotting down notes on my review form and turning the short piece of paper black with ink. I remember I wrote that one of the problems was that she was a white woman addressing a room full of white people and they felt like she was giving them permission to write stories about PoCs and other marginalized folks wholesale. I implored the conference to understand this problem on my dripping sheet. Then she started saying “other” this and “other” that, constantly invoking this fuckawful word (more 101 stuff, look it up on your own time).
This went on for 45 minutes. At the end, she received, I kid you fucking not, a standing ovation. After the standing ovation she opened the floor to questions. The first person to speak was a white woman who literally said, “Thank you for giving me permission to write these stories!” My jaw dropped. Not out of surprise, but because although I had written the note of concern, I did not think someone would literally speak those horrible words. But there it was. A white author gave permission to a roomful of hopeful white authors to write whatever the fuck they want and damn the consequences. There were other awful responses, I can’t remember all of them. One person said that people would tell her stories, but not want to write them down, or possibly even share them with anyone else, so she felt it was her responsibility to tell those stories – but didn’t consider the reason that the person might not be writing them down at all. She also thanked Stephanie for giving her permission and inspiration to write those stories.
After receiving much thanks and praise, Stephanie finally said, “And I know this subject is controversial, so if you disagree, please feel free to speak up!” Let me remind you that I was in an extreme minority in this room. The room had just given her a standing ovation, and another five minutes of spoken praise and thanks. She has no idea what it feels like to be in that kind of environment. Maybe if I had balls of steel, maybe if I wasn’t concerned about my literal safety all things considered, I might have been able to speak up – but this was no safe space to speak. She invited debate knowing that no one could speak, or at least being so completely ignorant of her privilege that she had not the slightest clue of what she was asking people to face.
I’m not going to write about the rest of the conference. It had its ups and downs, but I was in a numb state the rest of the time I was there.
J.K. Rowling has the largest audience of readers in the world next to, arguably, Stephen King and the Bible. J.K. Rowling is a white writer who suffers from white inneffectualism. She is not a mediocre writer, she is a good writer. She is a great storycrafter. She has the love and admiration of countless people, many of them white. When she writes this story using and abusing the sacred stories of native people for her own whimsy (while writing about boarding schools, for fuck’s sake!) she is standing on her platform and “giving permission” to her audience of white readers and writers to look people in the eye and say, “fuck you” when they ask for compassion. Stephanie Kallos was not teaching compassion even though the word was in her mouth, and J.K. Rowling is not teaching compassion. She is promoting white inneffectualism, which actively harms marginalized people.
But shouldn’t writers write what inspires them? Well, yes. And shouldn’t writers write what they don’t know? Aren’t you a fantasy writer? You can’t write about magic if you don’t write what you don’t know! Yes. I, sort of, agree with you. Again, we’re delving into some 101 shit, but let me see what I can do here. I realize that people want to know how to handle this respectfully. I realize people are looking for answers. I’ll give you the best I’ve got, but what you’ve got to understand is that I’m just one dude. I’m one half-breed Cora/Chiricahua dude, and I’ve got one perspective. So don’t take my words as some kind of permission and don’t use what I’m saying as the end-all be-all of your explorative writing. So here’s what I’ve got: You should absolutely write what inspires you, and you should absolutely write what you don’t know. But if you’re writing what you don’t know, you need to write it compassionately, you need to give a few fucks about your subject. You need to write it at the feet of the people you are writing about. Authors take ride-alongs with cops to write about cops, but they can’t fucking visit a few elders on the rez before they write about indigenous people? One of my published stories is about a trans character, and I am not trans. You can be damned sure I spoke with multiple trans people and showed them my story and got their feedback before it got published. If anyone had asked me to change something or remove something, I would have taken their thoughts seriously before publishing it. That’s the huge fucking difference here. Sure, write what inspires you. But don’t actively oppress people when you write! Don’t write Heart of Darkness! It doesn’t matter how well-written the book is, because it is actively harmful to black people! Don’t write History of Magic in America, because it is actively harmful to native people! How complicated is this basic fucking shit, white authors? Write like you actually care and treat people with respect and thank them and honour them.
I have to explain to a lot of people one of the major issues with white people writing native stories. Some of this should be obvious, like the fact that for most of history white people have been writing our stories and completely fucking them up and making us look like goons or worse and we’re sick of it. But here’s the more complicated thing that you fucks don’t take into consideration when you want to write your cool Horned Serpent story starring a wilting blonde white girl who has it all, but loves the culture: the stories are sacred to us. Think about this. White people showed up here and stole our land. They stole our women to be raped. They stole our children to be colonized in boarding schools. They stole our land. Today we struggle with appropriation, particularly of regalia such as head-dresses being worn at music festivals or on sexy half-naked women. Let’s not even get into the fucking Redskins. Today our children are still being stolen from us by CPS and placed into white families. Today our livelihoods are often stolen from us by fake creators of “official native art.” You want to claim this has all happened in the past, but it is an ongoing theft of our identities, of our selves…and here you are, you white writer fucks, and you want to take literally the last sacred thing we hold closely to our chests? Our stories? This is why you can’t just fucking walk around and say write whatever the fuck you want, because none of you get it. None of you have had this experience. None of you have had to live with this theft: your identity so worked over by robbers, that it literally is the aspect of being robbed that you identify with now. You don’t get it, and you can’t write these stories if you don’t fucking get it. I don’t give a fuck how much you love our culture. Fuck you!
Here’s the very brief unedited free write I did about the first time I was aware of my race in Roberto Ascalon’s workshop.
I’m at the grocery store down the street from my mother’s apartment, the dingy tile and scent of deep-fried meat in the deli are familiar to me. This is the only grocery store I can remember ever having shopped at. It is familiar as my own home. Maybe I’m 10. Maybe I’m 8. Maybe even younger. I’m sure I was younger, but I can’t recall how young. I’m wearing a swap-meet t-shirt with a Ninja Tortuga on it (just so no one gets sued) and brightly coloured shorts. I am comfortable in my space, behind my mother in line, staring at the collectible sticker books they used to sell. The check-out lady begins to yell at my mother, but it is only when my mother starts to cry and makes me put down my sticker book that I pay attention. We leave without our two carts of groceries (we shopped once a month, and I had three younger brothers) and my mother is hysterical as we drive home with empty hands & empty mouths. The checkout lady had accused her of stealing “just like all the other wetbacks,” but we’re not Mexicans, she sobs. We’re Apache people. When we step back into the house, I look again for the millionth time at the old black & white Edward Curtis photographs of Geronimo & Cochise & Sitting Bull lining our walls. I look at my mother’s shelf full of China dolls, each one dressed in the regalia of a different tribe – Apache are there of course. All of the carpets and blankets are in the Pendleton style. My mom cries and swears and says we’ll never go back to that grocery store. It’s the only grocery store I ever remember having shopped at.