Tag Archives: representation

“Uncanny Magazine” staff talk representation and “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”

A few weeks ago I came across a Kickstarter campaign called Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It was all over my Twitter feed because it was around this time that the American House of Representatives was trying once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and this time they came dangerously close to managing it.

It seemed like the campaign had dropped out of the sky to send me a message: science fiction is finally doing something about representation! Also: check this thing out.

Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is part of the Destroy series (previous: Women Destroy and People of Colo(u)r Destroy, among others) by “Uncanny Magazine,” an online science fiction and fantasy magazine that publishes fiction, nonfiction, and some killer artwork.

Issue 17 cover art, courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

I reached out to the editors of “Uncanny,” Lynne M. Thomas and husband Michael Damian Thomas, who along with Managing Editor Michi Trota and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Guest Editors-in-Chief Dominik Parisien and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discussed the upcoming issue and its place in the current sci-fi scene:

1. What have you noticed with representation in sci-fi over the years? A lot of people would argue that sci-fi has a representation problem – what’s your take?

Michi: If you’d asked me several years ago, I’d have said that there wasn’t much representation beyond primarily white people, particularly white men, writing SF/F. But I think that’s because I didn’t know where to look, as well as the fact that SF/F writers, editors, artists, and other creators who aren’t able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white men are just not made very visible by the industry. Because the truth is that marginalized creators have been a part of the genre since the beginning, and there are so many creating amazing stories and art. But we’re continually pushed to the side and erased so that it seems like it must be “a new thing” whenever waves of visibility for us come back around. Which can be really discouraging for marginalized creators who want to be part of SF/F;  – it’s hard to imagine yourself as part of something if you don’t see people like you included from the get-go. It’s a long-standing problem because there’s still the entrenched idea that women, POC, queer people, disabled people, etc., aren’t “appealing” to a general audience, as if, say, white able-bodied characters will appeal to everyone, but stories featuring disabled POC are “niche” and therefore not worth the marketing effort.

I think what we’re seeing reflected in projects like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and the previous Destroy projects, is a push for those with power and influence in the industry to be more aware in their choices of work and creators to publish. There’s more of a desire to actively combat biases and normalized systems of discrimination instead of just waiting for these problems to fix themselves, or relying on marginalized people to do all the work of addressing our own oppression. And the more visible marginalized creators are in all aspects of SF/F— – as characters, writers, artists, editors— – the more it encourages other marginalized people to imagine the possibility that there’s also room for us to be an active, welcome part of the genre.

2. The Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue is coming at a time when the Affordable Care Act is on the brink of repeal. Was this part of the impetus to develop this issue?

Elsa: No, but it’s certainly a driving force behind how I look at the issue. As a disabled person, and certainly as an editor, right now my perspective is shaped by what’s happening to disabled Americans, and this legislation and repeal are a huge part of that. But it’s also about the legislation that already exists: The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] turned 27 this July, and yet there’ve been no improvements to the law in that time, nor have there been better laws put in place. Civil rights for disabled people are a long ways from equal, and that shapes how I look at disability representation as a whole, too.

When we’re not equal in real life, in our governance as citizens, it’s hard to envision futures where we’re equal. I hope this issue challenges that, and creates better futures for us.

3. How would you describe the representation of disabled people in the sci-fi and fantasy genres generally?

Elsa: Well, there’s not as much representation as I’d like. And by that I mean, there isn’t enough variety. There was a hashtag by Netflix recently: #FirstTimeISawMe, and I saw a lot of disabled people posting that they’ve never seen themselves in literature or film. Myself included. I’m partially deaf-blind. I’ve certainly never seen myself in science fiction, though occasionally I’ve seen pieces or parts of my experience.

Often, disability is erased, especially in settings in the future where medical science could theoretically cure all disabilities and illnesses. Same goes for fantasy settings where magic can do the same. The good representations are few and far between. Of course there’s the beloved Miles Vorkosigan series [“Vorkosigan Saga”], and there’s Inquisitor Glokta [“The Blade Itself”]. But it’s not enough, and there’s very few film representations that involve disabled actors (count: None as far as I know.)

Cover art for “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction”. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

4. What are you hoping to achieve with this special issue? Is there any particular goal or conversation you’re trying to induce?

Dominik: For my part, I want to give disabled writers an opportunity to tell their stories. It can be difficult to want to write about a character like yourself if you’ve never encountered one in media. It’s easy to internalize the conception that you don’t belong, that people don’t want to read about others like you. I want to help disabled authors who might be reluctant to write themselves or people like them into their stories to have the confidence to do so, not just for this special issue but in general. Something like Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction is important, but it’s an opportunity and not a solution. You can’t have these stories appear only in this environment, otherwise their value becomes limited, sanctioned in a way. I want editors, writers, and readers to see people’s enthusiasm for the project and demand to see more material like it elsewhere.

And for able-bodied writers who want to write disabled characters into their books, I want them to read the material — the fiction and poetry, but especially the nonfiction and personal essays — and to consider how they’re writing those characters, and why. Are they actually writing a character, a person, or just a trope or a plot device? Are they perpetuating harmful representation? These are important things to consider, especially because it’s too easy to dismiss criticism later by hiding behind good intentions of “‘ just wanting to include those characters.”’ Stories have an impact, and our nonfiction in particular is a powerful way of showcasing that.

Elsa:  Dominik hits the nail on the head here: having disabled authors tell their stories is the most important part of this issue, and that includes nonfiction. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to share a wide variety of experiences from disabled authors, about genre, about their writing processes, about themselves.

5. Let’s talk about the “Destroy” series more generally. What was the goal of the series originally? Has that transformed over the years?

Michael: When “Lightspeed Magazine” started the series with Women Destroy Science Fiction, they began their mission statement with: “Women aren’t writing ‘real’ science fiction, the fallacy goes. ‘Real’ science fiction is… . . . whatever science fiction certain men like. Some days this makes us sad. Some days it makes us angry. And some days it just seems hilarious… . . .and a quip on Twitter turns into a special issue of LIGHTSPEED in the space of roughly half an hour.”

This was expanded for their Queers Destroy Science Fiction and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction special issues. The goal for the series is to challenge the idea that science fiction literature’s default is cis, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, American male creators and characters who shared those creators’ points of view. These special issues quite successfully countered that these stories should be privileged over everybody else’s.

Editors of “Uncanny Magazine.” From left to right: Michael, Michi, and Lynne. Courtesy Lynne M. Thomas

The Destroy series has transformed over time by finding many different marginalized voices from a variety of backgrounds with each subsequent special issue. The series has also more and more embraced intersectionality and understood that there is an axes of oppression and discrimination.

Of course, the biggest transformation has been passing the series to “Uncanny Magazine”. Since “Uncanny” already shared these values with the series, it was really a perfect fit for us.

6. What’s next for “Uncanny Magazine”?

Michael: Year Four for “Uncanny Magazine” promises to be extremely exciting. Thanks to the amazing response to the Kickstarter, we know we will be doing both the Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction issue and a shared-world dinosaur issue along with our four regular issues. The Hugo Awards are in a week (“Uncanny Magazine,” the Thomases for editing, and “Uncanny” stories by Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander are all finalists) and the the World Fantasy Awards are in early November (the Thomases and Bolander’s story are also finalists for that award). We will also have a new poetry and reprint editor (Mimi Mondal) and interviewer (Shana DuBois) for Year Four.

We are so grateful for all of the community support of the magazine. We think we are doing something important, and it’s only possible thanks to our contributors, staff, and readers.

Happy Eid! Positive portrayals of Muslims in the media

As some of you may know, tomorrow, Wednesday July 5th, marks the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr. I thought to celebrate, it would be interesting to dig around and find some of the best portrayals of Muslims in the media.

It’s no secret that since 9/11, there has been an increase in hostility towards Muslims and those who appear to be of a racial background associated with Islam – Sikhs in particular, for example, have paid the price for increasing Islamophobia. As a result, the portrayal of Muslims in the media has been overwhelmingly negative. While this is most apparent in the news, it’s also strongly present in creative media as well. This isn’t even just a post-9/11 trend; the documentary “Reel Bad Arabs” incisively demonstrates that degrading stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in Western media goes back decades.

It’s important, then, to highlight and celebrate the movies, television shows, and books that buck the trend. Here’s five titles that prominently feature characters that are prominently and pointedly Muslim and make them active, sympathetic protagonists. I tried to focus on movies and books that are set in a Western environment, rather than those set primarily in the Middle East or Indian subcontinent. Spoiler alerts all round!

1. Ms. Marvel – Marvel Comics

When Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan discovers that she has superhuman powers, she takes on the superhero name Ms. Marvel and goes off to fight crime and the forces of evil! Kamala is not the first Muslim superhero, but she is definitely the first one to be produced by a company with the clout and legacy of Marvel Comics. The comic series marks an important shift in the portrayal of Muslim women in particular.

2. Little Mosque on the Prairie (Six seasons)

CBC’s “Little Mosque on the Prairie” was a big deal when it came out, and no wonder – where else on television can you find Muslim families and in particular a Muslim Imam portrayed so normally? The series follows Amaar Rashid, a big-city lawyer who leaves his lucrative career to become the Imam of a mosque in a small Canadian town. He befriends the many residents, including the Anglican Reverend, whose church basement actually houses the mosque. The show is particularly good in that in showcases a variety of personalities in the Muslim community: there’s the conservative but ultimately loving father, the practical businessman who just wants to keep his costs down, the ambitious, feminist doctor, all part of a larger community of allies and antagonists, who are ultimately united for the greater good of their town.

“Little Mosque on the Prairie” is available on Amazon Prime and Hulu.

3. Arranged (2007)

In “Arranged,” Muslim teacher Nasira feels isolated in the Brooklyn public school where she works – that is, until she meets and befriends fellow teacher Rochel, and Orthodox Jewish woman. The two bond over shared beliefs and values as both go through arranged marriages, arranged here referring to marriages based on introductions set up by family, friends, or a matchmaker. The film not only demonstrates the common ground to be found between Muslims and Jews, but also elucidates religious practices that are often seen negatively in Western society, such as wearing the hijab or dressing modestly in general.

The movie is available on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

4. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy 

Set in London, “The Room of Lost Things” features Akeel Khan as the entrepreneurial son of Pakistani immigrants who works in a dry-cleaning shop under the direction of the owner, Robert Sutton, who is preparing to sell it to him. Akeel is ambitious and hard-working, and, as a bonus, his wife is portrayed as cheerful and intelligent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feature prominently in the narrative, which focuses on the way the lives of the dry-cleaning customers intersect with the life of Robert Sutton. But the relationship between Akeel and his wife is a supportive and happy one, in stark contrast to the forced marriages narrative that is so often peddled by the media.

5. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged – Ayisha Malik

Londonite Sofia Khan works at a publishing house when her boss asks her to write a “tell-all” book about dating and marriage among the Muslim community. She approaches the idea with skepticism (I don’t blame her), having recently gotten out of a relationship with a man who expected her to live with essentially his entire extended family post-marriage. The book benefits not only from a diary-style format, but also from the fact the focus is less on Sofia’s search for love at the personal level, a classic chick-lit topic, but on her search for love at the academic, exploratory level.

Who are some of your favorite Muslim characters? Share in the comments!

 

Link Bank: June 2016

This month’s Link Bank explores issues of diversity, representation,  and more…

Who Gets to Tell Other People’s Stories? – NY Times

“There are times when such efforts can appear profoundly self-serving; when bearing witness or showing compassion feels more like public performance than real acknowledgement or understanding of another.”

Asian-American Actors Are Fighting For Their Visibility – NY Times

“It’s never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood, let alone take a stand against the people who run the place. But the recent expansion of Asian-American roles on television has paradoxically ushered in a new generation of actors with just enough star power and job security to speak more freely about Hollywood’s larger failures.”

X-Men: Apocalypse Needs To Be The End For Bryan Singer – Film School Rejects

“This is a cast that is easily likable, but the creative teams behind it aren’t giving us anything that feels fresh. No matter how many new visual tricks, or beloved characters and moments it adapts from comics, it seems like more of the same. And even though Oscar Isaac is a great actor, Apocalypse is an indistinct big bad whose stakes are so high that it has a numbing effect on the audience. The fact that he looks like Ivan Ooze the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show just feels like a twisting of the knife. ”

A Cup of Tea With Oliver Sacks – TEDTalks

“Out popped Oliver Sacks, peering at me uncertainly. His prosopagnosia, or face blindness, made him unable to recognize me from my author photo. When I told him who I was, he engulfed me in a great big bear hug.”

How Do Artists Make a Living? – TEDTalks

“After all, artists innovate — it’s what we do, no matter what our medium is. We imagine ways forward that no one else has imagined before, in literature, music, theater, dance, art, performance. There’s no reason we can’t do it with economics as well.”

How Can We Best Help Talented Underrepresented Students? – The Creativity Post

“It was support from teachers that helped students feel connected to school. Further, rigor without attention to social-emotional and talent development proved to be a deal-breaker, especially for adolescents at this critical period of identity development. We came to understand how proactive schools needed to be in building collaboration with families.”

Racebending vs. whitewashing: Whys, whens, and hows

If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.

Context matters

One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”

This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.

See this beautiful setting? It's Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO. via sailormoonnews.com

See this beautiful setting? It’s Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO.
Image via sailormoonnews.com

Where diversity is now

If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.

Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.

The "diverse" world of The Avengers.

The “diverse” world of The Avengers.

This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?

I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.

Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?

I rest my case.

What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?

When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.

For example, a good question here would be, "Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on."

For example, a good question here would be, “Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on.” Image via trevorcamis.tumblr.com

1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.

2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.

3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.