Protagonists with Radical Acceptance Decide to Let Adversity Wash over Them

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:

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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.

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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.

Quotes: The Rigid Rules of My Life Were Stories

This is a thought that’s very easy to pass with a shrug and an “Of course”:

“It was ironic, wasn’t it, Solís? I was not even aware that the rigid rules of my life were stories, passed on from generation to generation because that’s all we knew. Tía Inez believed it, and la cuentista before her did, too. And so, we gave every cuentista of Empalme the same rules, the same restrictions, and we held them down, and we forced them into a life they couldn’t possibly have chosen.”

–Xochital in Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert [original emphasis]

But it gets very different very fast when you start thinking of everything, absolutely everything, that’s involved in your daily life. Start with how you’re brought up, kindergarten, school, and on. Or travel a bit further away from your home, or are able to talk with a stranger who trusts you with their life story.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that the sweater I’m wearing right now is “supposed” to be a boy’s. I saw it in a second-hand shop, liked the colors and print, liked the size, liked the price even more, and bought it. It’s a sweater; it kept me warm and left money in my pocket as a poor student. It still fits my “supposedly” “wrong” shape well enough after all the years I’ve had it. Who cares who is supposed to wear it?

Twitter CatCafeLiverpool Cat Fits Cat Sits

If it fits, I sits… err, wears. Me wearing this sweater isn’t hurting anything or anyone. But, of course, little things like an article of clothing can symbolically stand for larger issues, and those, as we all know, can really be thorny.

Humans really are storytelling animals.

Oshiro, Mark. Each of Us a Desert. New York: Tor, 2020, p. 374-5.

Images: Each of Us a Desert by Eppu Jensen. Cat in a box via Cat Cafe Liverpool.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Almost None […] Depict a Successful Transformation of Society

Cara Buckley’s 2019 article in New York Times talks about how environmental concerns have been depicted in some recent superhero and sci-fi movies. Climate change may have been moved to the back burner in recent news; nevertheless, in the beginning of the article there is a very important, timely nugget:

“Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

“And so they must be vaporized by half, or attacked by towering monsters, or vanquished by irate dwellers from the oceans’ polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

“That is how many recent superhero and sci-fi movies — among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures as well as ‘Aquaman,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ — have invoked the climate crisis. They imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.

“But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell more stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

“’More than ever, they’re missing the mark, often in the same way,’ said Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and author at the multimedia site Yale Climate Connections. ‘Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society.’ [emphasis added]”

Even though a pandemic is a very different kind of beast compared to apocalyptic-level climate catastrophes, the current covid-19 epidemic can surely feel like a devastation. I’ve certainly seen my share of panicky social media messages.

We’ve recently started re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and this line veritably jumped out:

ST DS9 s3 ep18 Distant Voices

“It’s just that… this year is a little different.”

Indeed—this year is different. Unlike good Doctor Bashir’s, though, our situation is a little more dire than turning thirty years of age.

Right now there’s no long-term data available, so any estimates of the long-term effects are guesses—at best cautious, at worst wild—but every opinion I’ve seen says the world will change as a consequence. And as a nerd, that interest me.

I can’t think of many speculative stories off the top of my head where the society has adjusted in a way that focuses on our shared humanity. On the contrary, most of them cannot seem to be able to find much good in human behavior during crises. Since social collapse at the beginning of a disaster is a myth, I’d like to see more stories concentrating on people working together. (That is my favorite kind of story for a reason, after all.)

There is one thing I do know, though, limited in scope as it is: I will be most seriously displeased if writers and producers of the future fail to learn from witnessing the amount of cooperation and outpouring of help people are providing not only their own communities but also strangers.

Buckley, Cara. “Why Is Hollywood So Scared of Climate Change?” New York Times, August 14, 2019.

Image: screencap from season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode “Distant Voices”.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Delightful Music: Fringe Theme

One of the most enjoyable things about Fringe is the theme song. Here is a full, 6-minute version:

Fringe Theme [FULL] via mrbrzoskwinka on YouTube

It’s composed by Michael Giacchino, who has an extensive music department background in genre tv, movies, and games (Jurassic franchise video games and movies, Alias, Zootopia, some rebooted Mission Impossible and Star Trek movies, Rogue One and both of the new Spider-Man MCU movies, for instance).

It’s rare to come across a speculative show theme that uses the piano so unapologetically, let alone a story of an FBI agent investigating weird crimes. I’m in no way an expert, but I seem to have noticed that piano has fallen out of fashion these days, so for me the Fringe theme is valuable on those grounds as well.

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

SFFnal Book Classics: Redemption in Indigo

Redemption in Indigo was Karen Lord’s first published novel. It won a number of awards and nominations, including the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

Current Reading Redemption in Indigo

The description from Lord’s website reads:

“Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha, now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi—who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.”

Redemption in Indigo has been called a contemporary fairy tale, a mix of Caribbean and Senegalese influences (chapters 1-3 are based on the latter), and a story of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit, complete with trickster spiders.

I found Redemption in Indigo intriguing and refreshing. Since it pulls from such different traditions than my native northern Finnish ones, I did occasionally have to consciously stop and adjust my expectations (like I did when I was reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death).

Anyway. Paama’s humor was a delight, slightly sarcastic at times, and I’m definitely a fan of well-crafted sarcasm (like Jane Austen’s). Her bit-of-a-dumbo husband Ansige cannot control his appetite, with consequences bordering the ridiculous. Lord also made some interesting structural choices which nod towards oral storytelling traditions.

The most enjoyable feature of the novel, however, was how seemingly small scale beginnings (a wife walking out on her husband) actually turned into life and death siatuations, and, yet, that wasn’t turned into a DRAMATIC OMG IT’S THE END OF THE KINGDOM / EMPIRE / WORLD (again)TM story like so many western fantasy novels tend to be. Lord’s subtle telling just rolls smoothly on, forcing the reader to pay attention. I had more than one “Wait, what?” moment… Which, to be explicit, is a good thing!

Dr. Lord is a Barbadian ownvoices author, editor, and research consultant. Visit Lord’s website for more.

Image by Eppu Jensen

ICBIHRTB—pronounced ICK-bert-bee—is short for ‘I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Read This Before’. It’s an occasional feature for book classics that have for some reason escaped our notice thus far.

Quotes: To End That Was to End Their History, Their Present, Their Future

“All that was left of a person’s life was recorded on paper, in annals, in almanacs, in the physical items they produced. To end that was to end their history, their present, their future.”

– Aster Grey in An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

…Which is why the attitudes and words of those writing our world’s history matter; why social sciences, humanities, and languages matter (and not just STEM); why diversity, inclusion, and empathy matter.

Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books, 2017, p. 327.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Conflict Is One Kind of Behavior

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

I’d like my speculative fiction actually inventive, you know. Just like a human being is rarely reducible to one trait, yet that treatment is often used in storytelling as a shortcut, especially when it comes to characters deemed less important, like women, children, old people, or minorities of various stripes.

Which is not to say that stereotypes, caricatures, or the like don’t or cannot have a place in storytelling. However, if the majority of storytelling focuses on nothing else than characters or story elements reduced to their bare bones, it’s bound to become boring and empty.

There is so much more to our world, let alone imaginary worlds!

Found via Martha Wells on Tumblr.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Two weeks to A Wrinkle in Time

It’s just over two weeks ’till A Wrinkle in Time opens at theaters (March 09, 2018). The movie is based on a young adult novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle. It was first published in 1962, and starts a series called Time Quintet.

While the book wasn’t for me, I have higher hopes for the screen adaptation. Here’s the U.S. teaser trailer…

A Wrinkle In Time Official US Teaser Trailer by Disney Movie Trailers

…and the official U.S. trailer:

A Wrinkle in Time Official US Trailer by Disney Movie Trailers

The adaptation was written by Jennifer Lee (of Frozen and Zootopia fame) and directed by Ava duVernay. A favorite actor I’m most looking forward to seeing is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whom I loved in Doctor Who as Tish Jones (Martha’s sister) and Belle.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.