Fantasy and science fiction author Vida Cruz tackles an aspect in SFF that was new to me: that BIPOC protagonists are often seen by (white, Western) editors and readers as inactive, and why that’s false.
(I’ve written elsewhere a little about teaching myself to read novels in English after I started learning the language in 7th grade, how it’s so effortless to me now because I took the time and trouble then, and how reading mostly Anglo-American literature has shaped my thinking and expectations of stories.)
Cruz’s thread starts here. I’ve unraveled it below:
I want to talk about how western editors and readers often mistake protags written by BIPOC as “inactive protagonists.” It’s too common an issue that’s happened to every BIPOC author I know.
Often, our protags are just trying to survive overwhelming odds. Survival is an active choice, you know. Survival is a story. Choosing to be strong in the face of the world ending, even if you can’t blast a wall down to do it, is a choice.
It’s how we live these days.
Western editors, readers, and writers are too married to the three-act structure, to the type of storytelling that is driven by conflict, to that go-getter individualism. Please read more widely out of your comfort zone. A lot of great non-western stories do not hinge on these.
Sometimes I wonder if you’re all so hopped up on the conflict-driven story because that’s exactly how your colonizer ancestors dealt with people different from them. Oops, I said it, sorry not sorry. Yes, even this mindset has roots in colonialism, deal with it.
If you want examples of non-conflict-driven storytelling google the following: kishoutenketsu, johakyu, daisy chain storytelling/wheel spoke storytelling. There was another one whose name I forgot but I will tweet it when I recall it.
Anyway, I think there is a space in literature and beyond for stories about radical acceptance or that have a radical acceptance aesthetic. Accepting the things you cannot change but dealing with them in your own way. No pyrotechnics but plenty of potential for drama.
What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.
Once again, I repeat: SURVIVING IS A DECISION. BIPOC based in Western countries do it all the time. Us third worlders do it all the time. But of course if you grew up white in a Western country, being mired in hopeless systems will be hard for you to grasp.
And if you’re a BIPOC author, listen: you may be already as good, if not better, than most of the competition out there. You keep getting rejected not because your story sucks but because white editors do not know how to read your work. Keep trying.
Last but not least, we don’t just need diverse demographics for everything, WE NEED DIVERSE STORIES. Get your colonizer heads out of your asses and seek out other traditions. End rant.
I found the other storytelling structure! It’s called Robleto and is of Nicaraguan origin.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
One last! Another type of story that everyone loves (or pretends not to love) but no one will publish in the west is FLUFF. YES THAT’S RIGHT, FANFICTION FLUFF. SUCK ON THAT.
It has been pointed out several times so I will amend the thread to say: all my points apply for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill protagonists, too. Our way of showing agency is DEFINITELY different from yours so please be mindful of that.
For me, the main point Cruz makes is:
“What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.”
– Vida Cruz on Twitter
This reminds me of my frustration with the Halle Berry -led SF series Extant (which I referred to in an earlier post). I’ve asked myself whether they really wrote her merely feeling and flailing around or whether it is my misreading. Granted, it was some years ago now, but I don’t think I misinterpreted it; Extant lacked self-awareness or self-examination. (Or perhaps the writers’ room was forced to put out such claptrap by people higher up in the production.)
Possible examples of stories with radical acceptance / survival protagonists that do come to mind include the novels The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (Black protag) and Among Others by Jo Walton (disabled protag).
Anything you can think of? Please share! The concept is something I’m still mulling over, so more examples would help.
Also, any suggestions on a concise name for protagonists like this? I’m drawing a blank for the moment.
Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.