8:00pm, 7th March 2018
Hurt and Harm: An Apology
I had a story come out on the 1st March in Galaxy's Edge: Things Said to Me in the Anxari 12 Station Bar When I Said I Wasn't a Xenosexual (and the Things I Wish I'd Had the Courage to Say in Reply. It's a small thing; only 444 words. Please don't read it if you're queer, especially genderqueer, at least not until you've read this post.
A week ago I'd have said this story was a silly thing, but it turns out that's not true. It turns out it's quite a harmful thing, fails to do the things I meant it to do, and then fails even more for other reasons I completely failed to anticipate. It's my biggest fuck up in writing, and something I need to apologise for unreservedly and explain at length.
I'm very fortunate that people have had the grace, patience and forbearance to send me private emails detailing the ways I got this so wrong and thus allow me the time to process this fully and react correctly. You know who you are, and sincerely: thank you, thank you, thank you. I'll be quoting anonymously from their emails, with permission, because they phrase it better (and more authoritatively) than I could.
And let me say this up front, because no-one should have to dig through more of my words to get to this important point: I am sorry, without deflection or excuse, for the hurt I've caused and the harm I've perpetuated. I have done both of those things, both upset people personally and contributed to stereotyped narratives that create and support real world problems for people. I'm mortified I didn't catch this one, and I can't apologise enough. I've donated my payment for this story (Â£25) to Mermaids UK, a UK charity supporting trans and gender nonconforming children in the UK.
This will take a few thousand words, and it'll be broadly split into two parts: the specific failures here, and the general lessons to take away. Please bear with me, because this apology is probably the most important thing I've written.
- Specific Failures:
- What I Intended
- How I Failed to do What I Intended
- How I Failed in Ways I Hadn't Intended
- What I Am Going to do About This Story
- General Lessons:
- How I Can Stop It Happening Again
- How I Can Reduce the Odds of it Happening Again
- Frequently Asked Questions / Frequently Raised Objections
MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: this is not, in any way, an attempt to defend what I wrote, to excuse my failure, or to invalidate any reactions to it. I'm detailing it as a baseline so I can demonstrate where I went wrong.
The initial thought was to riff on the idea of lesbians being hit on by straight dudes--the standard lines of "that's a shame, you're so pretty", "I bet I could turn you", etc. I thought I could take that to extremes with an SF setting to get a laugh: a human on a far flung space station, surrounded only by aliens whom she doesn't desire, constantly being harassed beyond all her patience but still too shy to really say anything. I read a couple of funny list articles (maybe this one? Something similar, at least), rattled it off in an hour or so, and sent it out.
Well done me, being so empathetic and putting myself in others' shoes to understand their experiences!
Yeah. Not so much.
The (failed) joke was meant to be in the dissonance between her presumably-polite-out-loud responses and the specific, angry responses she was composing in her head, with a final section that emphasised just how alone she actually was, cut off from other humans, treated as nothing more than a potential sexual conquest by (almost) everyone until she was too tired to connect to a genuine offer of friendship.
But I completely neglected to establish that the narrator was female. Pretty big oversight, right? And reading the story with the assumption that it's a male character (as you might reasonably interpret, from the first-person narrative and my male byline; that's a trap my brain often falls into) casts all the violent language in a whole other light. It becomes much more aggressive, much more dangerous--and much more familiar from real life.
Part of that specific failure, too, is that the language is male-patterned in its aggressiveness. I thought about the first implication of "it must be annoying to be hit on by people you have no interest in" but failed to get to the second implication of "it must be dangerous to reject them overtly". From a friend:
I don't know anybody who would go to insults or threats, just because you don't know if they're going to be lingering at the end of the night, hurt or insulted. And yes, I know the narrator is not saying anything out loud, but the level of anger even in their head feels disproportional to the situation...
The tone of the rage reminds me far more of a homophobic straight cis-guy freaking out over being hit on by another guy than anything else
And from another friend:
I guess what also stuck out to me was the fact that, generally in my experience and from what I understand of women who exist in straight spaces, when women are hit on in an uncomfortable or inappropriate way, sure they might think "eugh, gross" or "I don't want to deal with this" or "I'm gonna give this dude what for" but their primary reaction in a lot of cases is fear. The protag didn't express that at all. But women often fear for their lives when they reject unwanted advances, and with good reason - examples abound of them being killed for it. So it felt like the protag was in this place of bulletproof privilege to snap back and threaten and be sarcastic, which didn't feel realistic to me.
It's a failure of imagination. Not just in an abstract, SF, worldbuilding sort of way, where the aliens are humans-but-green; it's a failure in a real, human sense, where I failed to properly empathise, to think through the real-life consequences of these sorts of situations, to step outside my privilege (as a 6'4" white cis man, I can more or less say what I want without much fear of consequences and/or get the full benefit of the doubt).
I thought I could get a sufficient understanding of the situation from reading list articles, ffs, because I found articles that agreed with my existing viewpoint and what I wanted to do. I never actually engaged my brain and thought it through from the point-of-view of my character. I failed a fundamental part of my craft.
This is where I really fucked it up, in a way I didn't see coming at all. This is where I perpetuated harm, and what I'm most sorry for. (I'm sorry for it all, to be clear, but especially this.)
A recurring theme in the story is the narrator's discussion of the alien bodies, and the violent and specific reactions she has to them. She imagines telling one suitor "exactly what you should do with your headfeathers, Captain Parrot", and reacts to another offering to form himself to her needs with a death threat.
I'm going to quote at length from friends here about just how poorly this reads:
While being trans/nonbinary doesn't require having a "nonnormative" body for any definition of the word, fixation with trans bodies still ends up being a large part of the narrative, especially in the misconceptions. The aliens having nonnormative bodies and the narrator's disgusted response to that ends up unconsciously reading as a cissexist response. I'm sure you've heard of people who've tried leveraging a "trans panic" response when they're hit on by trans people (most often trans women) and respond with aggression and fear. The narrator ends up channeling that voice regardless of whether or not you intended that.
[On the intended comedy of the story] I think ultimately what a lot of us were questioning was what was supposed to be funny in the story, given the additional undertones and the superficial nature of the story. If the exaggerated response is supposed to be funny, it ends up not reading that way to trans people who are terrified of flirting with cis people because of trans panic responses, as the narrator reads cis when juxtaposed with the nonnormative bodies of the aliens.
And from another:
I couldn't help but feel like the narrator was male, and was reacting violently and dangerously to the flirtation of non-normative people (or I guess, sentient creatures at least). And I couldn't help but think, if this narrator was hit on by a transwoman, in a teasing, "how about you call me if you change your mind" kinda way, would they also want to react with horror and disdain and violence? As a queer person, [redacted for anonymity], it made me very uncomfortable to see the protag react this way. One of my trans friends said "This is why I am terrified to hit on straight people."
This interpretation never even crossed my mind. I never contemplated the story from the POV of the aliens, I never made the connection between the nonnormative alien bodies and trans folk. I regurgitated, and contributed to, the subconscious, culturally-ingrained oppression of trans bodies.
It doesn't matter how much I try and act as an ally otherwise, what other work I've done to support and signal boost trans people, because this isn't a BioWare RPG with a single points score for morality. Good doesn't outweigh or cancel out a certain amount of bad: it all stands alone. This harm stands alone--doubly so because once a piece is published, it is divorced from the writer to a large extent, shorn of context.
I did this. I fucked this up. And I'm sorry.
There's one other way I fucked up, and it is a less obvious reading, but I think that once a reader is on the defensive from reading other harmful lines a story starts being read less charitably (which is absolutely fair enough):
The "fuck off aliens" sentiment... I think given more space and nuance, "fuck off aliens" can work, but given a compressed frame and coming from a white writer, "fuck off aliens" comes with some unfortunate undertones given the current anti-immigration atmosphere that's pervading multiple white-majority countries. It's a more minor issue in the story, but I did pick up on it and it made me feel uncomfortable.
And as someone else pointed out:
...the carefully personalized internal responses make this person come across as a xenophobic xenobiologist.
That is a craft failure on my part with regards to the character. She does come across that way, and it makes no fucking sense, but I was too carried away with my own cleverness with the joke and never thought through such implications as "someone who doesn't want aliens touching them probably doesn't want to study them either." The final line was meant to show that really, the xenobiologist just wanted a friend, and was happy to be friends with the aliens, but the earlier aggressive tone overwhelms that sentiment, I think.
I can't pull it from publication, unfortunately. Galaxy's Edge is primarily a print market.
I won't, however, send it out for reprints. I won't include it in my year end round up. I won't send it out on my mailing list (whenever I finally get round to that again, anyway). I will limit its future exposure as much as possible.
With one exception: I will include it on my site. But I will preface it with a large content warning, and a link to this essay, and I will do that so that I'm not hiding from my mistake. Maybe it can be a learning tool for others. If anyone thinks this is the wrong approach, please let me know.
EDIT 21:43, 7th March 2018: after discussion on Twitter, and given the fact that Galaxy's Edge doesn't appear to maintain online archives, I've decided not to include the story on my site henceforth. Once Issue 32 of Galaxy's Edge goes up the story will no longer be available online. The first part of this post, covering the specific failings of this particular story, will become irrelevant in time; the general lessons will remain forever pertinent, though.
That's the specific failures covered, so far as I know. Onto the general lessons.
Hahahahahahahaha yeah, sorry, no, there's no such easy answer.
Alright, there is one answer: I only ever write cis white anglo guys henceforth. That reduces the possibility of accidental harm to almost zero. But it does it by acting in a deliberately harmful way, committing a constant act of erasure. And to me--admittedly speaking from a position of privilege--that constant and deliberate harm seems worse than the occasional, accidental fuck up. It's not the way I want to write. It's not the world I want to see, or help make. I refuse to write with such cowardice.
There are ways I can minimise the risk of these fuck ups, though. Two ways in particular.
Firstly, take my bloody time. It's no coincidence that the other time I've been here, albeit as a near miss, was for another story under 500 words. That's because these stories are ideas that sprung up on my drive into work, took me less than half an hour to chew over in the car, and less than an hour to write once I was at a computer.
And then I sent them out. I didn't sit on them and mull them over and come at them from different angles, as I'm in the habit of when it's a longer story. I didn't send them out for feedback. I wrote them fast and submitted them without a second thought.
We are all--every single one of us--moving through a racist, sexist, ableist, queerphobic, classist, fucked up society. We have been soaking in it since our first days. It is impossible to avoid its influence, and it takes an awful lot of work and a very long time to train yourself out of bad first thoughts contaminated with these malignant cultural influences. And that work starts in listening to others, yes, but it's mostly in recognising those bad first thoughts and taking the time for second thoughts, in giving yourself the opportunity to catch yourself and examine and improve.
So I need to sit on new stories for long enough that they are no longer the New Shiny and I can evaluate them honestly and (so far as possible) objectively.
Secondly--and this one is more contentious, but please bear with me, because I absolutely believe it myself--I need to stay in my lane, and not write marginalised experiences I haven't been through. As one friend put it:
I think stories about the experience of being part of a marginalized group should be left for those within that group to tell... "Xenosexual" feels iffy because it's a superficial understanding of harassment on a gender/sexuality axis that you (to my knowledge) don't experience [Note: I don't]. So my advice would be that it's fine to write characters that don't identify the same way as you, but to leave writing about the experience of being an identity that's not yours to those who are part of that identity.
Put another way: I absolutely should and will write stories featuring people who are not like me. I will write people of other genders, other sexualities and other races into my stories, and I will do so as often as I can, deliberately compensating for decades of underrepresentation. The majority of my characters are already female. I'm working on making the majority of them non-white, too. I need to work more on my disabled representation, though I'm still at the stage of listening and absorbing stories from disabled writers to get a better handling of that marginalisation.
While I can write a story featuring marginalised characters, I should not write stories about the specific experiences of that marginalisation. I can write a story about a gay character taming a dragon and riding it to the gates of heaven to tear down the corrupt gods. But I shouldn't write about him coming out to his parents, in this or any secondary world, because I haven't lived that.
"But you haven't ridden a dragon to the gates of Heaven either!" No, but crucially, neither has anyone else. No-one else has to live with the consequences of a culture suffused with poor representations of dragon-riding god-killers, and there is no culturally overwhelming body of work meeting that definition. But there are plenty of people who live with the consequences of poorly-represented coming out stories.
If, in the first example, things go badly in my story, it won't put anyone off dragon-mounted deicide, because you couldn't do that anyway. If things go badly in the second hypothetical story, it might put someone off coming out, or make them approach it in a bad way, or fill them with doubts about the way they've already done it. Or it might colour a parent's reaction to their child, or a friend's reaction, or undermine that very difficult, real life situation in any of a hundred other ways I can't even imagine from my position of privilege.
And I'd never realise, because I've not been through that process myself to understand the nuances and the reality.
And sometimes, frankly, it is just about who I am. There's one more fuck up I've not mentioned yet: the fetishization angle. The intent of the story was that the narrator was being fetishized for her species, made a sexual target solely by virtue of being human. And, from one friend:
As a person of color, I have experienced my fair share of being fetishized for my race, and "Xenosexual" has undertones of that to meâthe aliens show interest in the human narrator because they are human, rather than any personal trait, reflecting experiences I've had of being fetishized. But it's extremely uncomfortable for me to have a white person writing this narrative because, for the most part, white people do not experience this, and if they do, it's not on a systemic scale.
Even if I don't necessarily fuck up the representation of a marginalised experience, I am dipping into it from a safe vantage point of privilege, like a first-world tourist visiting a third-world country and wringing my hands about how the world is failing them as a nation and going home to my expensive dinner parties and pretending my experience "made my soul richer" or some bullshit, I don't know, this analogy has gotten away from me. But I should treat real-life experiences, and especially real-life harassment and suffering, with respect. I shouldn't mine it for cheap laughs.
All this, about staying in my lane, is something I'd already come to believe over the course of the last year, but this story, alas, was sold back in January 2017, before my thoughts on the topic had crystallised. That's not an excuse: I only mention it to demonstrate that this understanding is a journey, an on-going effort, a constant drive towards self-development and -awareness and -improvement. The work never ends.
Aren't you overreacting?
In word count, probably--this is me after all--but in terms of how seriously I'm taking it? Not at all.
Aren't your friends overreacting? People get offended by anything these days!
No. No no no no no no no. The stuff I've touched on above is stuff that affects them personally. It's their lived experience, and they are absolutely authoritative on the harm I have caused them personally. I'm not saying they're an authority for any particular marginalisation, because no-one is, everyone's lived experience is different--but they don't need to be. They're only speaking for themselves, and that is enough.
They are, however, exceptionally talented writers whom I admire and respect very much, so they speak authoritatively from a craft point of view as far as I'm concerned.
But you know what? Who they are doesn't matter. A complete stranger maintaining their anonymity could have said the above to me and it wouldn't have changed whether it was true or not. The circumstances of the reporting would not have invalidated the reported response. Your reaction to these situations should not depend on the "quality" of the person reporting it to you.
As to "offence", I've spoken before about the difference between harm and offence. All this, here, is absolutely about harm.
Does this mean I have to think about every story from every possible angle just in case someone interprets it in a way I hadn't intended? Isn't that a lot of work and responsibility?
Yes. Are you a professional or not? If you want to be paid as a professional, treated as a professional, taken seriously by other professionals and read by an audience, "work and responsibility" are your end of the bargain.
Shouldn't anyone be able to write anything they like? Isn't that the true liberal post-racial/-gender world?
Your utopia sounds lovely, but it's what we're aiming for, not where we're at. And to get there, we need to do something different from what we've been doing. To pretend otherwise is to support the status quo.
Publishing history is littered with books by White Dudes about everyone else, and if we don't move on from that nothing will ever get better. I'm now just one more in a long line of white dudes regurgitating harmful misconceptions because my context for understanding is based only on harmful misconceptions put out there by other white dudes. Our common culture is suffused with misrepresentation, and we absorb it unconsciously, and if we don't stop to interrogate it (as I didn't here) we end up just churning it out again uncritically.
So for now we need to step aside and not write the narratives that aren't ours, so that the people who do own those narratives in their lives can write them from a place of experience and deep understanding. Then in twenty, thirty years, when pop culture is filled with #ownvoices stories and that authenticity has become the background noise of our culture, maybe there'll be enough instinctive understanding of topics that other people can write those narratives sensitively and empathetically, with a comprehension of the truth and not just distorted echoes of it. Other people can write white nerdy dudes pretty successfully, after all, given that so much of popular culture reflects that experience already.
But barring me from writing these stories gives PoC/queers/[minority] an unfair advantage!
Two things: the whole rest of your life gives you an unfair advantage. That's literally what privilege is. And remember that intersectionality is a thing, and you can be marginalised on one axis and privileged along others.
Secondly: do you really think no other stories are worth telling? No other insights are available, or worthwhile, or told by contemporary media? There's no shortage of story ideas to choose from, no shortage of human themes and struggles and questions. Pick something else! It's all valid! If it seems like minority stories are getting more attention, that's perhaps only because it's accompanied by a surge of relief that such stories are finally being told authentically. Be grateful that your stories have always been told.
Should you be annoyed that you're writing in the first time in modern history when you can't just write what you like? When the people affected by your writing might have the temerity to complain when you misrepresent them? No. You should feel excited and privileged to be writing at a time when publishing is expanding in important ways more than it ever has.
The SFF field is stronger than it's ever been, more exciting than it's ever been, and I sincerely believe that's because it's finally opening itself up to a broader range of creators. We need to support them, not steal their stories from under them.
Something something freedom of speech!
...is not freedom from criticism or consequences.
Are you seriously still talking? This is 4000 words already.
Only to say one more thing, one final time: I am sorry for the hurt I caused and the harm I perpetuated. I will do better in future.