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Writer, Messenger, and Professional Weirdo
Yay! Pictures! Pop Quiz! What do all these pictures have in common:
If you said:
The answer is D: All of the above, but before breaking out the pitchforks, I’d like to point out it’s the covers I’m on about, not the content of the books. Mercedes Lackey is pretty in your face about sexuality, Jim Butcher has characters from all over. Ditto for Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Pratchett (and I picked that book in particular for a reason) is pretty vocal about deconstructing racism in many of his books and he’s funny when he does it. Double win. So content is not an issue here.
What is an issue is that you can walk down the fantasy/sci-fi section in any book store and be hard pressed to find a cover that doesn’t feature that lovely Caucasian look. We default to it. Granted, you might find one or two and, as time goes on, you’ll find more and more and that is a good thing. Having a white person on the cover of a book isn’t bad. Having nothing but white people sorta is yeah – especially when other people exist in the world. Hello!
Like I said: we default to white. Especially if we are white (hi!). My leading lady, Sam? Her looks were based off of a mix of this lovely lady and this one – because I am no less susceptible to falling into the default rut than anyone else.
Then something weird and totally unintentional happened. I sat down to write the second draft. Joseph stopped being a priest and Sam’s hair got curly. A person whose intentions I’m sure were pure [sarcasm tag] pointed out that an urban fantasy novel with an obviously African American lead (that’s right: curly black hair = obvious African American) wouldn’t sell easily.
So what did I do?
Nothing, actually. It became a quirky side-story to tell and make people laugh or roll their eyes. I didn’t change her personality, her description, nada. She’s pure nut-bar pixie dream girl who will mess you up if you look at her boyfriend funny. She’s been that way since her initial makeover during that fateful November. If people wanted to see Sam as black I was totally okay with that. I couldn’t (and still can’t) think of a good reason why it would be a bad thing. Then the time came to describe her to my cover artist, because yeah, Sam’s going on the cover.
And while I realized that it didn’t matter to me what color her skin was, I could do one of two things: I could “correct” the assumption that curly black hair = dark skin, because that’s just a dumb assumption to make no matter what. Or I could jump in with both feet and go, “Yes, this creative, spacy, smartass hyperactive half angel superhero who is her boyfriend’s knight in shining armor is, in fact, a black girl.”
And if it really didn’t matter to me, then why couldn’t she be? We’ve got plenty of pretty pale girls in the genre and Sam is not herself if she isn’t standing out from the crowd. She usually does this by wearing Rainbow Brite arm warmers, mind you, but y’know: whatever.
And if having a black girl on the cover of my self-published e-book means I don’t sell a copy to someone, then gosh I …I just don’t know what I’d do! /sob
This happened unintentionally. At first, Joseph didn’t have a last name. When I actually needed to give him a last name it took me a very long time before (and writers will understand what I mean when I say this) he just sort of sat down in my head, exasperated, and said: Singh.
Well okay then.
I didn’t start out to make a statement with my characters. It sorta happened and I’m good with going with the flow. My first goal is to tell an entertaining story. If I manage that and just one person who hasn’t had much in the way of heroes to look up to finds one in Sam or Joseph (or Ben, or Gretchen, or Theo, or Simon – have I mentioned that the majority of the cast is not white?) then awesome.
I hold no illusions. This will never ever be my day job. My book isn’t going to end up in the fantasy/sci-fi aisle at your local bookstore so putting characters with darker skin on my cover isn’t going to make the slightest dent there. It makes my job more interesting because what does a white girl know about this sort of thing? How do you write a character of color?
Gosh! Turns out it’s not a whole lot different from writing a white character. You give them flaws and strengths and personality quirks, just like any other character. You make them as rounded and real as you possibly can while avoiding the landmine field that is offensive stereotypes which really isn’t that hard. And then you hope you did it right and if you didn’t, you listen to critique and then you apologize and change what needs to be changed. Chances are if you treated your characters like people you did mostly okay. At least, I hope so.
I also trust that if I hit on something offensive by accident, my friends would graciously beat the ever loving snot out of me until the stupid went away.
Here, have a bunny:
I think maybe I mentioned once or twice, in passing, that I was a mom. I have a 16 year old son (I mentioned my age before, and if you remember then yes, you can do the math and yes, yes I was that young). I don’t talk about my family much because my comfort zone doesn’t extend that far. But since we’re pushing comfort boundaries here, let me tell you internets, being a parent is an interesting experience. I’m not good at it. My kid is fantastic and I have no idea how he ended up that way, because it’s not me.
The Universe is a tricky bastard. I don’t think it’s out to get me and mine, per se, but it is having some fun experimenting at my expense. The dialogue goes something like this:
Universe: I see you are turning 18 and graduating from high school soon. I see also that you are taking birth control and antibiotics at the same time. Did you know that antibiotics can negate the effects of the pill? Oh, well that condom broke and you do now.
Universe: Motherhood is fun huh? Well here’s a new job that pays you $50 a week. Make it work!
Me: Yeah okay.
Universe: I see you made it. Good, good. Time to go back to school!
Me: Yeah okay, I’m on the deans list?
Universe: …Here. Have a husband.
Me: I like my husband!
Universe: Congratulations on finding a decent paying job in this struggling economy! You’re digging yourself out of debt and have a nice place to live! Everything is going smoothly! Your kid is doing well in school! By the way, he’s gay.
Me: I am almost guaranteed not to be a grandmother by accident! *happy party dance*
Universe: Right. Okay. You shrugged off everything else but how do you handle your kid questioning his gender identity?
Let’s stop there.
Look, every 16 year old on the planet has gone through a period where they’re figuring out who they are, who they like, what interests them, and what they want to do. So what’s going on here is a) normal and b) no big deal. What makes me angry is when the rest of the world tells him that it’s a) not normal and b) a big deal.
I don’t like watching my kiddo look down, stutter, twist his hands together and nervously admit that things don’t fit. Like he thinks he’s broken. Like he’s wrong. Like I’m going to get angry with him, even though he knows better. That sense of shame is not something my kid should ever be carrying around, and yet here we are.
And I am angry.
I can’t snap my fingers and make the rest of the world fall into line, but I can make sure my kid gets what he needs. So I spent the majority of my days off hunting down information because while I’m moderately more informed than average, I still had no idea where to even begin. When your kid asks to play on the computer when he’s in the dog house for bad grades, the obvious answer is no. When your kid asks to speak to a therapist to help him figure out who he is the answer is ohshitGoogle and you start making shot-in-the-dark calls.
And you have no idea how the person on the other end of the line is going to react, so you have no idea how to phrase things. You officially become the bulwark between the rest of the world and your kiddo because you’re mom and that’s your friggin job. I got a lot of blank uncomfortable silences when I asked about gender identity so I dropped the coyness and started straight up asking about kids who are possibly transgender (even though the kiddo isn’t sure he is at this point, it’s the word that got the most “Oh!” responses and then I got to back up and explain). Do you know anyone who works with kids in this group? Do you know anyone who would know anyone who would… etc etc.
And I live in a moderately rural area. The closest metropolitan area is Green Bay (yeah, metropolitan in the loosest sense of the word) and that’s about a four-five hour drive away. So the answer to the question, “Is there a therapist in the area who works with kids questioning their gender identity?” is a resounding nope. There are several councilors who work with kids who identify as gay/bi/lesbian, but gender-queries are an entirely separate thing that has nothing to do with one’s orientation. What I needed was someone who knew what questions to ask and who was experienced in this area.
Nope, nada, nyet, non, zilch, zero, go fuck yourself.
But pester enough people and dig deep enough and someone will eventually point you in the right direction, if for no other reason than to get rid of you. I was put in touch with a councilor from downstate who gave me some good direction, a list of medical tests to get done to rule out any sort of chemical/medical causes, and the name of a local doctor to call and get them done.
So I called and the doctor works for the university and therefore won’t see anyone who isn’t a student/faculty/staff or their families. Well bugger me then. Their suggestion was to call the behavioral health center at the hospital. They couldn’t handle medical requests (I don’t know) and said that the best thing to do was contact his regular pediatrician and get them to do the tests, which puts us back at square one. I should note, in case it’s not obvious, that my faith in humanity is pretty low, so it wasn’t without a little trepidation that I put in the call to the pediatrician. Like all my initial calls, I had no idea how they were going to react, and that made me put my guard up, just in case.
I was actually very impressed. After the initial blink blink, the receptionist put me over to the nurse who also had a very brief blink blink moment before shrugging and getting into the nitty gritty. She took the list of tests and the name and number of the councilor I spoke to so she could call and make sure they were getting the right labs ordered. Then she made sure we got an appointment with kiddo’s regular doctor. That was it. No judgement, very helpful, and after the initial brief confusion (which I can’t fault them for, honestly, because I’m a wreck at explaining things verbally), got down to business and got things done.
So until then we’re in hover mode. The appointment isn’t until January, so there’s time. After the initial rush, the kiddo’s fine with waiting, because things are actually happening. It’s just slow, which is life. Once we get the test results we’re on to phase two which is…
…You know what. I have no idea. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
I mentioned on Monday that I work for ten hours a night answering other people’s telephones. This is true. I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, and working almost exclusively at night for over two. What this means is that when dealing with the funeral home accounts that make up the majority of our business, I’ve talked to my fair share of nurses.
Let’s be blunt. Nursing – especially hospice nursing – is a very difficult, and mostly thankless career and you definitely don’t get paid enough for it. About 95% of the nurses I talk to are nice, professional, and know exactly what needs to be done and when. They may not like being called out at 4am to pronounce a patient, but they are wise enough not to shoot the messenger. To these nurses I say: I love you. You are, in every sense of the word, a hero.
To the other 5% I say: How the hell did you graduate from nursing school?
I have spoken to hospice nurses who didn’t know what the phrase “next of kin” means. Who didn’t understand why I would ask for something as silly as a contact number for the next of kin. Who didn’t understand what I was asking for when I asked for the time of death. Yes. Those nurses.
So for the 5% who need a crash course, stick around and I’ll try to make it informative. If this all seems like common sense, I agree with you. Go ahead and enjoy the complementary wine and massage by our very own cabana boy, Antonio.
That’s it. See? It’s not hard. You and I are both professionals. I enjoy my job so help me help you and we can help make a very difficult time for a family just a little easier.
Congratulations on passing the course! Antonio will now see to your needs:
Author, ranter, dad
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She turns coffee into books so she can afford to buy more coffee. And more books.