So Tablesaw made me aware of a train wreck.
Tablesaw made me aware of the story Household Spirits by C. S. E. Cooney
It is a story published in November of 2010 by Strange Horizons.
Strange Horizons has this in their mission statement:
"We’d like to help make the field of speculative fiction more inclusive, more welcoming to both authors and readers from traditionally underrepresented groups, so we’re interested in seeing stories from diverse perspectives and backgrounds."
This is the author of the story:
And this is her bio:
C. S. E. Cooney lives in a Chicago attic with a lively cross-breeze and a few paper cranes to dance in it. Her stories and poems have appeared in Subterranean Press, Ideomancer, Doorways, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Goblin Fruit, and Mythic Delirium. She has two novellas forthcoming in 2011 issues of Black Gate Magazine, as well as with Drollerie Press and Papaveria Press.
And before I was fully a page deep into this story, I was asking myself: WHEN WILL WHITE PEOPLE STOP MAKING
MOVIES LIKE AVATAR STORIES LIKE THIS?!
The story is a classic 'White boy moves out onto The Frontier and Communes With The Natives and Joins the Tribe ’ narrative. But because these are Space!NDN’s he gets to use Alien Magic to Actually become a member of the tribe For Reals. A tribe that is conveniently mostly dead because they all committed self-genocide with a side of deliberate child abandonment, politely getting the 'Vanishing Natives ’ trope into place without any of the Nice White People having to be culpable for atrocities. The Magical Natives left one of their kids physically bound to each of the households that were taken over by the encroaching (demonstrably white) humans because…moving on. Anyway. The Magical Native Boy attached to their house is So Wise and So Loving and Communes With Nature and Does Magic. When they kill a deer, it WOUNDS HIM SO. Sure, it’s gussied up as Alien Magic, but painting the Mary Sioux blue does not make it less a Mary Sioux. Noble Savage all the damned day long. And the most pacifistic pacifists ever to exist. Because then they can be delightfully Christlike, the better to trigger and then sooth the reader’s White Guilt. But it’s ok because they’re full of VULCAN RAEG.
See now’s a great time to segue into some quotes.
Just is case you were wondering if you were in a proper Space Western:
"Reckon we’ll stay through Holyday before pressing the frontier. Jessemee says he’s tuckered but it’s me he watches. Our boy don’t miss a thing. Well. My bones don’t mind the rest. Funny folk in Prophetdam. Lots of drinkers."
Which is going to be about White Guilt Catharsis: “Nary a one seems fit to split a smile with a fellow or meet him eye to eye. Walk crunched over too, all of them. Even the kids. Like they’re guilty just for living.”
It’s the job of the Nice white People to repair the Tragic Busted Natives:
"Mimo looks a bit like this old Kilquut farmhouse we bought sight unseen. Skinny and leaning, with dirt on it so thick I don’t reckon a bunch of bachelors like us’ll ever get it scrubbed clean."
(We know, by the way, that our protags are Nice White People because there are also Bad White People in the story. Of course, our Protag defeats the Bad White People with his Mighty Whitey powers of not being bound to pacifism. This action kicks him over into being Really Native.)
Natives have dark complexions. And are blue. I can’t help but imagining it like Hollywood War Paint.
"Mimo’s a tiny critter, maybe your height, Del, but even darker. Got blue marks all over ”
"I won’t get to watch her grow up small and dark…"
They are also STOIC.
"She’s usually got no more expression than a tree stump, and it was like all of a sudden I could see that tree stump bleeding."
They are FULL OF RAEG.
"Look," he said. There was this boulder by the river, where the Guzzlers had lined up all their bottles for targets. Most of them were in pieces, but one empty handle of gin stood upright. Mimo just looked at it and it shattered. Then the boulder itself exploded. A piece of it came so near my face, it cut me.
"That is how angry I am," Mimo said, "all the time."
But they refuse to utilize violence or even active but nonviolent resistance to their oppressors, because they’re beatific like that. The whole premise started out thusly:
"…The Kilquut elders had a sit-down at their meetinghouse (big ramble of a place the Gladstones have overrun), and said, They’re coming. We can’t fight them. We can’t become them. We can’t leave."
Because…moving on. They all kill themselves and leave their kids bound to the old homesteads.
Because our author felt that this was the neatest way to get rid of them. Because our author needed her Space!NDN characters to be ghosts.
And our protags are white. It’s not mentioned until quite late, but it’s clear that we are to assume so. In fact that the author would probably be shocked if we hadn’t assumed so. We get it confirmed because when one of them is involved in a house fire, he comes back looking like this:
"His face was black, black like the sailors from the Ivory Islands, the ones with gold in their ears and their teeth and their eyes."
So. White protags. Space!NDN windowdressing. White Guilt Catharsis. Mighty Whitey Goes Native.
This story is one of a long line of stories EXACTLY FUCKING LIKE IT. To quote the iO9 article above:
[this narrative] imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America’s foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent…These are [stories] about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.
In this instance we have a tidy post-genocidal world with tragic vanishing native survivors – without the genocide being anyone’s fault, of course – so that some white kid protag can literally Save The Natives and then Go Native and it can Be Beautiful. Indians can be Exotic and Tragic and most importantly Dead. We have yet another installment of the same tired stereotypical bullshit about Native People that feeds into how REAL LIVE NATIVE PEOPLE are perceived and treated by the culture.
Let me pull you aside here.
First, some Sherman Alexie.
I Hated Tonto (I Still Do)
How To Write The Great american Indian Novel
And a little background on Moff’s Law and its trope
And here’s Chimamanda Adichie talking about The danger of a single story.
Are you on the same page with me yet, lovely readers?
Then you’ll understand what I mean when I say that
STORIES LIKE THIS HURT ME.
They hurt PEOPLE LIKE ME. The especially hurt CHILDEN LIKE ME. They hurt me because they are part of a cultural narrative that erases the reality of my existence. That claims that This is what NDNs were and Now they Are Gone isn’t it Sad? But if our good readers had been there, OH IF ONLY THEY HAD BEEN THERE, they would have been some of the Good White People and would have Joined The Natives. Yes they would. Which neatly absolves them from having to think about the fact that their ancestors didn’t and the lasting ramifications that has on native people living today. Everyone weeps cathartic tears and insistst that they’d have helped the Na’vi fight to keep out the unobtamium miners, but precious few of them then go home and help the REAL FUCKING LIVE Dineh (Navajo, to those playing the white name game) fight the uranium miners TODAY in the REAL WORLD. And why should they? The story already absolved them.
Just to add insult to injury? Author has done this shit before. Here’s a delightful excerpt from her story "Pale, and from a Sea-Wave Rising"
"She pointed, and Quill couldn’t help noticing her hand. A fine set of phalanges. Skin a bit too brown. Slave blood? No. Maybe a touch of the Red Indian. A Narragansett Princess, torn from her tribe by the force of the storm. A wind dancer. A witch. Delicate in the carpals, perfect at the wrist, where ulna met radius. Had Quill dissected such a hand, he would never have forgotten it. "
BRB, fetching my scalping tomahawk. I mean, that tradition wasn’t ever something my tribe did, and was in fact introduced by white people to plains tribes and really used far more upon them than by them, but what the fuck. It seems fitting.
The author has responded to this critique and an accompanying one that tablesaw wrote, and she has done so with great grace and humility, displaying understanding and willingness to do better in the future.
Authors take note. That response is a serious piece of Doin It Rite. I feel better now.