I am enjoying a little bit of the traditional post-birthday choice paralysis when it comes to books, not helped by the fact that some of my long-standing hold items came in at the library. I enjoy the post-birthday choice paralysis. It never lasts longer than it takes for me to need another book anyway; as soon as I need one, I find myself able to choose. But the waffling is nice.
Lots of people wished me a birthday free of vertigo. And that...um. That didn't happen. At all. As I'm pretty sure they expected. But:
I'm thinking back to a post rosefox made awhile ago. She was talking about sexuality/queerness, but I was thinking of it as applied to race and sex and disability in fiction as well. The oversimplified version of the theory she was talking about (and ascribing to Rick Bowes, possibly*) was that there are three stages of having a queer person in fiction: 1) ACK!; 2) exploration of the queerness; 3) story about something else completely. And Rose was saying that she wanted another step beyond that, where the story was neither focused on the character's sexuality nor treating it as completely irrelevant, and I was thinking that I want that with race/ethnicity and gender and disability and really all sorts of other character traits, too. I see why it's sometimes interesting and sometimes necessary to have "What is it like to have a girl do these things?" stories, or "How does it change this story if the characters are black?" stories. But I feel like there are too cases where people assess whether it "matters" or not whether a character is female (/black/gay/blind/whatever) by judging whether someone was actively trying to stop them from doing something based on that trait. It can be a good story. But it's not the only way that a trait can matter.
Take The True Tale of Carter Hall, for example. Thomas Allen Lin. Called Tam because his little sister couldn't say Thomas when she was learning to talk, and it stuck. He's Chinese-American. (And not, you will note, Chinese. There are plenty of good stories to be told about born-in-China Chinese people in North America. But this is not one of them; one of the things that makes me absolutely crazy furious is when non-white people are assumed to be Not From Here due to being non-white. Will having a third-generation Chinese-American character in one hockey fantasy fix this? No. But it can't hurt.) Does it "matter" that he is Chinese-American and playing hockey? Well, on the one hand, no: there is nothing inherent that should make Chinese-American people any better or any worse at skating, stick-handling, etc. And would people picket a minor league team demanding an end to the Yellow Peril? One would most certainly hope not; not in Bemidji in 2008. I would be shocked. (I am frequently unpleasantly surprised by the newspaper. But shocked rarely.) But name for me the famous Chinese-American hockey players. I'll wait. No, good try, but Richard Park is Korean. Does it matter if you are not just the only non-white guy on the team, but the only non-white guy on any of the teams you play? Does it matter if pros of your race/ethnicity in your sport can be counted in a very short conversation? Well, yah. I think it does. Does it stop you from doing what you love to do? No. But motivational speeches aside, stopping you or not stopping you are not the only things that count. I think that's very lazy writing, frankly, and lazy social thinking. If your character interactions can be summed up in a yes/no checkbox, you're probably doing it wrong. (Oh, how many LOLauthors there could be with "Nuance: ur doin it wrong." Sigh.)
Tamora Pierce's Alanna books are dealing with the cases where someone comes out and says, You Can't Because You're A Girl. It's a pretty standard plot, done well. Her later Keladry series makes me happy because it recognizes that the world does not leap back in amazement and say, Wow, I Guess Girls Can! We Will All Reform Our Views! just because one girl did. It acknowledges that while being the first is interesting, being the second is interesting, too, in ways that are underexplored in this genre. But there are more steps down that road to take. There are more ways to explore gender mattering and not mattering in that fictional cultural context. Pierce can of course go down other roads if she likes, but this one has miles and miles ahead on it.
On the New Writers panel at Fourth Street, mmerriam said he wanted to see more disabled characters who just were disabled, who weren't there to have their disability miraculously healed at the end but who just got on with it, whether it was saving the world or contacting the aliens or what. Who were blind, or deaf, or had mobility problems, or any of a number of things, some of which show up in the real lives of the people reading this, but who were neither defined by that nor able to completely ignore it. I think there's a little more of that in books these days. I hope so. I loved how Hilary McKay handled Sarah and her wheelchair in the Casson family books. It mattered. It just didn't dominate. It wasn't the only thing that mattered.
So, circling back: did I have vertigo on my birthday? Yes. Did it matter? Yes. Did I have a good birthday anyway? Yes. Definitely. And I hope to continue to do so.
*Edited to add: Rick notes that first, this is not his theory originally, and second, he certainly doesn't see it as the be-all and end-all of what can be done with sexuality in fiction, much less other character-related topics. I think no one should have assumed the second point anyway, but it's still good to keep in mind.