(If you're looking for the 2nd part of this post, click on the link at the bottom.)
Years ago at my first writing conference (99%+ Anglo), I read the opening of my still-unpublished, SW dragon epic to a literary agent and some writers, all Anglo. Those who read before me received same-ole questions or comments about their stories. After reading mine, instead I heard, "Did you write that?"
That made as much sense as, "Are you really an earthling?" It was a writers' workshop, not a read-your-favorite-author workshop! For reading your own, not someone else's MS. Plus, all educated, responsible adults know about plagiarism, thus I assumed my integrity wasn't in question, maybe. So, why was I asked the question? Because my opening flowed like A Hundred Years of Solitude? No, since several publishers, agents rejected that novel; they would've recognized that, right? Take your own guess.
I don't know that my prose approached greatness, but I do believe my Anglo audience's underlying doubt amounted to: "How is it possible for a Chicano to write so well?" (If you have another interpretation, share it.) I had encountered a Closed Con of the Third--Anglo--Kind. Where we're expected to be the Con's janitors, cooks and waitresses, not its writers.
Last week I headed for LoneStarCon3 (this year's WorldCon in San Anto), one of the three largest sci-fi/fantasy (SF/F) conventions in the world. It was my first big one and first WorldCon. I didn't know what to expect--a neophyte, Chicano novelist prowling in the shadows of veteran, award-winning authors, famous and godlike residents of the speculative lit world.
Would this brown author survive or "make bad show?" How "white" would the meals and environment be? (Luckily, I took serrano chiles from my garden.) Would I find an agent or editor for my new MSS? And because the Con was also a possible first for SF/F by including a "Spanish strand," how would that turn out for "us?"
This column is intended for Anglos who want to know more about why some Latinos get so "sensitive and uppity" about U.S. publishing. From knowledge can come affinity.
It also provides non-SF/F readers and writers with material for promoting their art. Esas y eses, we need mucho más, to educate others.
I can't cover all the panel topics relevant to other genres: Anglos writing about Chicanos, bilinguals writing for monolinguals, a list of Chicano sci-fi, magic realism, how hard it is for Chicanos to be published and political messages in fiction. And due to length, this must appear in two installments. The links and information here verify points raised, or books and authors mentioned. Sections begin with descriptions of some of my panels, taken from the Con program.
Panel – Latino Characters by Mainstream Authors, Diversity or Cultural Appropriation? "Non-Latino authors have been more successful publishing Latino SF than Latino writers. What role have agents and publishers played in this and why? When do non-Latino authors go too far--cultural misappropriation--assuming we can define too far? The panel will explore these issues from a variety of perspectives."
Fellow authors warned me to keep my bronze nalgas out of this. Before the Con, two panelists did. I was advised, "Anglos don't like hearing about white privilege or cultural appropriation; they get defensive." But if I didn't raise those questions, maybe no one would. I should be ashamed, scared or avoid discussing the fact that I was born brown, the prejudice we face, or the privilege-myopia that Anglo writers and publishers need to overcome to create better American literature? Ni. Modo.
First, a "proof" that Anglo writers do better in publishing than Latinos. Here's data about two mid-list publishers whose goals include finding and publishing more Latino authors. The slogan of the Tu Books' imprint (of Lee and Low Books) is: "Fantasy/SciFi Diversity for Children and YA." Books they released in the last 3 years include Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall (her Under the Mesquite was from Lee and Low). The other authors are Karen Sandler, Shana Mlawski, Kimberly Pauley, Bryce Moore, Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki tribe), Greg R. Fishbone, whom I'm assuming are not Latinos. You do the math about who's more successful.
The 11 latest books published by Cinco Puntos Press ("With roots on the U.S./Mexico border") start with author Don Henry Ford Jr., the remaining are Larry Goodell, Gene Frumkin, Pat Carr, J.L. Powers, Lisa Sandlin, Douglas Gunn, Shirley Reva Vernick, Ambar Past (who did co-author with Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom and Xpetra Ernandes) and finish with Revenge of the Saguaro by my good gringo friend Tom Miller. There's only one Latino name, Joseph Somoza. They also published Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel by Xavier Garza and Six Kinds of Sky by Luis Alberto Urrea, which, to my knowledge, aren't SF/F.
Tu Books and Cinco Puntos have told La Bloga they'd love to receive more submissions from Latinos. The reasons they don't have historical and economic roots I won't go into here. But what's true for Latinos with these two receptive publishers is worse elsewhere for SciFi/Fantasy. When I asked the audience to hold up fingers for SF/F Latino authors they had read, a handful raised one or a few fingers.
Prior to the Con, I asked a few published, Latino novelists about their difficulties getting published:
"All of my novels and book proposals for the last couple of decades were rejected because they were 'not commercial enough.' They didn't go into details. Reminds me of when I first sold the novel Cortez on Jupiter. I was told how brave I was, writing about minorities, because 'They get offended, you know.' They even suggested I use a 'slightly Hispanic' pseudonym. I kept saying I was a Chicano. When word got around that I was one, they started treating me like an illegal alien. Maybe I should have tried to 'pass for white' and told them the novel was the result of research trips into the barrio. Ay! That's so absurd! Good luck at the con. I'm not sure if a lot of these Anglo-Americano sci-fi folks are ready for you, but el futuro beckons." - Ernest Hogan, Chicano author with a New Mexico Irish/Mexican immigrant father and mexicana mother
"A Latina editor said nothing about my writing, but said literary fiction was a hard sell and advised me to include more romance, her sense of what Latinas want to read. Publishers my agent submitted to, except the one Latina, complimented the writing in my novel, but still said no. They used the word marketability, a catch-all term indicating that, while individual editors might like the book, the sales and marketing teams didn't know how to classify it. I pressured my agent to dig deeper and the response could be summed up like this: 'Santa Fe, New Mexico . . . is that in Mexico?' or 'The Mexican-American War? Is this about drug cartels?'
"Mine wasn't an immigrant story, nor did it concern the American Revolution or Civil War, the historical periods most Americans are familiar with. After my book got published, one reviewer dinged me for 'too much Spanish.' My thinking at this juncture is that genre is important when dealing with Latina/o characters. Chick Lit will work, as will categories of immigrant story, mystery, thrillers and humor. But I hate following the rules. - Sandra Ramos O'Briant
"Spanish-language publishing is almost devoted to books by and about celebrities, and translations of a book published in English. If a book falls outside this, it almost always has to prove itself marketable beforehand--not by its own merits--but by a great sales record on a previous book or of the same book in English. Options have shrunk considerably." - name withheld by request
"When I was trying to sell my first book, I submitted it for a first-page critique by an agent from a major, NY publishing house. After the first page, she took a deep breath and said a loud 'Woow!' I thought it was a good sign until she said she liked it, but it was not marketable for her publisher. She recommended I submit to a small publisher.
"The manuscript was accepted by Arte Publico Press and became my first picture book. I discovered small publishers were more open to my manuscripts, and I was fortunate to publish many picture books with Arte Publico, Children Book Press and Luna Rising. Now with the help of my agent, I am publishing books with major publishers." - René Colato Laínez
"My agent and editor liked that I included cultural references germane to the story or characters. They appreciated learning about la Llorona, la Malinche and el cucui. The former head of the now-extinct Rayo HarperCollins told me that US-based Spanish language publishing didn't pan out. US readers would only read books in Spanish from overseas. Books in Spanish from US authors didn't sell." - Mario Acevedo
Sci-fi buff Junot Díaz--despite his characters' mujeriego failings--blew the frackin' lid off the marketability coffin of white privilege. But, the glass ceiling--more like a brick techo--won't disappear. I felt lucky to panel with Guadalupe Garcia Mccall, whose books have earned 25 literary recognitions. Has one macho NY publisher ever shown interest in her work? No, the big-publisher bar is raised higher for some. Lower, if you're not Spanish-surnamed.
Others, like black novelist Samuel Delany in his famous essay Racism and Science Fiction [that mentions Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein] () have faced the same, even when successful. Delaney talks about a short story rejected by a famous (and notoriously bigoted) editor because his protagonist is black. "As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, prejudice will remain a force—until, say, black writers start to number twenty percent of the total. When he submitted his novel Nova for serialization to the famous SF editor of Analog magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr., Campbell rejected it with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character."
Those serious about literature should read N.K Jemison's Continuum GoH Speech. An intelligent voice for progress and diversity that I might quote from next week. Check her writing, too.
The panel could have focused just on one aspect of cultural appropriation. It's hard reality in our supposedly advanced culture. Clothing company Urban Outfitters "willfully and bald-facedly swiping the iconic and pride-inducing United Farm Workers Union eagle logo to transform it into crap denim shirt fodder for their slave-made clothing." [They dropped that.] Disney Corp attempted to trademark Día de los Muertos for a movie title. [They were forced to drop that idea.] Gary Jennings of Aztec novel fame spent years researching our heritage and raked it in. After he died, his notes were turned over to Robert Gleason to continue the series. Piers Anthony's novel Tatham Mound also fits where our heritage is commodified, but without "our" having equitable access.
I can't not mention one of the worst historical examples. In 1984 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded one of its distinguished fiction prizes to a new and presumably young Chicano writer named Danny Santiago, for his first novel, Famous All Over Town, actually written by Danny James who pretended to be a Chicano. It's still in print under the same name! (See Manuel Ramos's post below for more.)
During this panel, Mexica author Norm Spinrad said something like: "I’ve used Latino characters in Little Heroes , and there’s more. I will throw out one thought: Turn this around and ask this rhetorical question: Is it OK and not politically incorrect for a non-American [I believe he meant U.S. Latino] writer to use American characters? ‘Nuff said!"
Here's an appropriate response from indio Sherman Alexie (told to Bill Moyers this year), “I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian.” http://billmoyers.com/segment/sherman-alexie-on-living-outside-borders/ Chicanos are in that same boat. We're surrounded by an Anglo majority at the workplace, in the hood--almost anywhere we go in the U.S. And we're told to write about what we know. However, not every Anglo author lives in a corresponding Latino environment. Which maybe means they research. How have non-Anglos responded to that?
From Latino Junot Diaz comes this: "We're in a country where white is considered normative; it's a country where white writers are simply writers, and writers of Latino descent are Latino writers. This is an issue whose roots are deeper than just the publishing community or how an artist wants to self-designate. It's about the way the U.S. wants to view itself and how it engineers otherness in people of color and, by doing so, props up white privilege. I try to battle the forces that seek to "other" people of color and that promote white supremacy. But I also have no interest in being a "writer," either, shorn from all my connections and communities. I'm a Dominican writer, a writer of African descent, and whether or not anyone else wants to admit it, I know also that Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen are white writers. The problem isn't in labeling writers by their color or their ethnic group; the problem is that one group organizes things so that everyone else gets these labels but not it. No, not it."
Poet Dr. Ricardo Sánchez's rules that "Chicano literature can only be written by Chicanos" and that "only Chicanos understand the nuance of the Chicano way of life" is somewhat similar to Alexie's. It's a matter of verisimilitude, no?
From La Bloga novelist Manuel Ramos: "My own view is that anyone can write anything he or she wants. Go ahead and include ethnic characters in your book so that it has the feel of authenticity. Throw in Spanish swear words. Make your protagonist a single, Latina female because your agent assures you that is what the NY editors are looking for, but be ready for heat if you get it wrong. Stereotypes, subtle racism, paternalism, and naiveté are products of bad writing. Call the bad writing cultural appropriation or exploitation or simply another rip off artist passing himself as brown and trying to be just as greasy as us regular meskins."
Again from Sherman Alexie: "Yes, there are white folks who write well about Indians. . . But let me draw a parallel: When white South Africans write about black South Africans, it is called colonial literature, right? It can be incredible, centuries-lasting, genius colonial literature, but it's still colonial. Hmmmm. Here's my official statement on the matter: White folks, I don't care if you write about Indians. You don't need my approval, advice or opinion. Do your thing. Put that wise old grandfather in it. And maybe some talking animals and a very concerned white person who wants to save the Indians. Just don't expect me to read it." Read more here. Frackin' Alexie's funny.
At the panel, I proposed that opposite cultural appropriation
, on the
spectrum's other end lies diversity.
"Movies Independence Day, Armageddon
and Deep Impact are offensive in
their exclusion of diversity. In these films the American military is depicted
with no Latino characters. Indeed, Latinos depicted in Independence Day and Deep
Impact are Mexican farm workers (one of three Latino stereotypes in TV and
Hollywood, like the gang-banger and "illegal alien"). In L.A. where
the majority of America's motion pictures and TV programs are produced, the
population is 44%+ Latino, almost every other person in So. California!" (info
If the span between appropriation and diversifying equals that of a rock and hard place, blame whoever made slaves of Blacks, stole half of Mexico, invaded Cuba and Puerto Rico (bastardizing their path to independence) and continues depriving us darks of voting rights, subjects them to stop-n-frisk and keeps access to publishing, a privileged path. If you think it's tough being Anglo, try Mexican, but just for a day.
At the end, I suggested that the Spanish dicho, Amor de lejos, amor de pendejos, applied to Anglo writers wanting to honestly portray minority characters. The saying translates as, love at a distance is the love of fools. If you'd love to include a Chicano, puertoriqueño, dominicana or mexicana character, don't depend on Google and Wikipedia. Let your daughter marry one, get boracho with your gardener, invite the family across the alley
, who have no
papers, to your next barbecue. Or, díos
mío, ignore an author's Spanish surname and read or consider publishing the
writing on its own merits. Marketability? How about literary worth, period?
Whatever was or wasn't resolved and answered at this panel, I sensed the dialogue can be taken to a higher level by us and others, not by "respecting" all opinions (especially "wrong" ones), but by grounding ourselves in history, facts, logic and persuasion. How well I did, I leave to others. For more from La Bloga on appropriation, see a Manuel Ramos post, a gonzo journalism post, one by Greg Barrios, and also see director/writer Jesus Treviño's interview at Latinopia.
I meet but never get to talk long enough to Chris N. Brown (who edited the must-read Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic), Darlene Marshall, Derek Kunsken, Jim Fiscus (my incredible guide), Guadalupe Garcia McCall (whom I hope to interview), Gay Haldeman, Stina Leicht, Ben Olguin (UTSA), Harry Turtledove (when I was too frazzled to seem interesting), drink and charla with poeta Reyes Cárdenas and Juan Tejeda (sí,vatos, the gringo at our bar table beat us fair and square), and muchos others. I never got to talk at length with Helen Umberger who laid groundwork for the Con's Spanish strand, found Gardner Dozois and was greatly disappointed John Phillip Santos couldn't attend.
• I get up from my computer and ask the dude next to me to watch my computer while I take a break. I come back and check his nametag--SF/F demigod David Brin! I ask his advice about how I should work my panel with Con special guest, novelist Norman Spinard, who's reputed to have opinions. He advises me, well.
• A white-haired guy and his wife stop me in the hall, and he says he liked what I said on a panel. "Which panel, what did I say, and why did you like it?" It's another demigod, Ben Bova, Ernest Hogan's discoverer. I shop for a button with, "BB likes some things RChG says" on it.
• I do autographs, seated next to author Gail Carriger. She makes me feel I time-transported to a previous century where strange attire and weird personalities are the norm. Worse, her line's a hundred times longer than mine. But she didn't make fun of me.
• I read a passage from my new, teen fantasy MS to a small audience. I think they loved(?) it!
My suggestions about the "Spanish strand." The concept was great and could use adjusting for any event seeking to increase Chicano, mexicano or Latino participation. (I failed to seek out avenues to share this at the Con.) Come to think of it, Latino strand might make more sentido; it's inherently associated with Spanish.
• Longer lead times for inviting Latinoamericanos are necessary. Homeland security is to blame for excluding our continental brethren, as well as the visa process of their country.
• Economic reality means we are privileged to have Con spending-money. Those peoples lowly paid by us for our gardens and restaurant kitchens, for cleaning our hotel rooms, growing our produce, and suffering violence in their countries to ship us our illegal drugs, have no such funds, except for narcos. To include the previously excluded, someone has to pay. Guess which end often doesn't have such resources.
• If high school and college Latinos are desirable at such strands and cons, more day passes need to be made available to nearby communities. Attendance could turn significant and be a good investment where it is normally not available. Con organizers did what they could; perhaps the Latino community, as well, could jump sooner at the opportunity.
• All leading con organizers should allow for one very famous gringo author on every one of these panels, to attract sufficient, Anglo attendees. Small audiences for such big questions can be interpreted as belittlement. By now, you might guess why.
Two other notes: SciFiLatino.com, a wonderful and vast resource. "SciFiLatino covers English and Spanish language media (books, movies, TV and more) from the U.S. and abroad. By Sophia Flores, whom I believe is puertoriqueña.
Check out the website of John Picacio who won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. He's got killer cards for a "new vision of the classic Lotería game." Coming soon.
Al final, feedback received for this column will be used next week to give opposing or simply, other views an opportunity for input. Even on our websites, us Chicanos enjoy the mi-casa-es-su paradigm.
The second parte next week will cover panels on Magic Realism, Chicano Science Fiction, and SF/F as Covert Commentary on Current Social Issues. Promise: you'll hear things you never realized, as I did.
Pero es todo, hoy,