Reviewing Books – Who knew it could be so political?

My colleague and friend, Laura, has been thoughtfully contributing to an interesting dialogue that looks at the intersection of literature and diversity (her latest blog posting makes reference to it). The discussion stemmed from another blog posting by Trish which debated if there is a responsibility for book reviewers to read diversely.

I wrote a blog posting about the whole thing last October. I never published it because it made for a very messy, incoherent article … and while any kind of dialogue on diversity is usually messy – I didn’t want it to be incoherent… so I will try to focus my thoughts.

This topic interests me for a number of reasons. I worked at an anti-racism organization. I am a writer. I have brown skin. I am female. I write speculative fiction. It all adds up to an interesting pot pie of perspectives.

At first, I read the comments on Trish’s blog posting without trying to get too engaged … having worked in anti-oppression, I know when people are slogging through difficult questions. And I certainly don’t know the answers. But I know some truths and they are that progress is only made with

a) meaningful, authentic dialogue

b)an honest look at oneself and the contexts we live in

c) the ability to be vulnerable.

So, let me revisit the most “hot topic” questions that emerged from this blog posting. Here are my thoughts on diversity and book reviews … I invite further insight, discussion and dialogue from others!!

How do reviewers (or anyone) decide what is authentic diversity in literature?

How about we change the question - is it anyone’s responsibility to read a book and decide if it’s authentic? Not really. I think the heart of what people really want to know is – how can I (as a person who reviews/recommends/reads books) not contribute to stereotypes already out there?

Most of the time when we think of racism or sexism, we think of individual acts committed by people, but we really need to be aware of the “powerful ideas” out there. These ideas propagate discrimination more than we know. They are like bedbugs. Difficult to identify and hard to get rid of.

Does what we read “feed” powerful incorrect, simplified ideas already out there?

Are the characters/situations in a book about an identity (that you don’t know about) fit with what you already expect/know?

People – like characters – are complex, layered, conflicted, and difficult to predict. If the person of another “identity” in your book is like this – then start a dialogue … ask someone else who is reading the book what they think. Maybe ask someone who shares that identity?

Then, no matter what the book says or portrays – there is real learning going on.

Politics and Book Reviews Don’t Mix – Or Do They?

Many comments from readers of the blog popped up the tune of: “well, we can’t please everyone and we are doing our best”  or “I don’t read to be political”.

In my experience, it’s hard to hear that if one group of people (i.e. female authors in science fiction) are not favored, there is an unspoken implication that another group has an advantage.

Please, please, please – if you can (and it takes years …if you want, you can start/continue your journey by reading Tim Wise for hard hitting stuff on this) … challenge yourself to acknowledge that in the game of life, there is privilege. The dreaded P word. Privilege is about getting a “pass” somewhere because we’re born into it. For example, my grandmother is a landowner back home, my parents had a post-secondary education – and as a result, I had easier access to education – and a good job – too. That’s where I have privilege.

No one should blame anyone for having privilege. But you should know in what domains you have it, and be an ally to those who don’t.

But whether or not you want to please others or be political — your choices either reinforce or challenge the status quo.

And, if someone chooses to challenge the status quo and be an ally to writers who are diverse – power to them! They are aware of where they can exert influence and that contributes to change.

And the most important topic – how can we read more diversely?

I found some amazing responses in the comments of this blog … my contribution?

Make your choices consciously. Search out small publishing houses whose mission includes seeking to publish more diverse voices. They exist!! Be an ally – join organizations that support diverse writers and publishers. The network will astound you. Make personal choices to read diverse authors. Laura’s latest book review is a beautiful example of that.

As one commenter said – it does make a difference. It is a complex issue but don’t be fooled by the complexity. You CAN do something about it. Remember – individual actions can help dismantle the system of discrimination :)

This is my little piece of mortar that attempts to build a foundation for a better world …



Elves Don’t Fall in Love

Cause for concern: The other night, my twelve year old niece was on her ipod touch, every free minute she had.

Cause for relief: She was just reading.

Cause for concern: She was reading fan fiction.

I explained to my sister that you have to watch out for fan fiction – as Shades of Grey started out as fan fiction. So – yes, there are some types of fan fiction a twelve year old should not be reading. But, more importantly, I said – “the writing is bad in fan fiction.”

Now, that’s a generalization, I know. Not all fan fiction can be bad. So, before I passed judgement, I asked my niece to pass over the ipod so I could take make an educated judgement.

I quickly gave it back to her.

“No, you shouldn’t be reading that,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked. “There’s nothing inappropriate there.” She had heard my sister, my brother-in-law and I use the word inappropriate many times. She knew what it meant.

“It’s not that,” I said. “Legolas – he doesn’t ‘crash through bushes and arrive breathless’, ” I quoted the website. “He’s an elf.”

My niece looked at me in confusion.

“Elves don’t belong in teen romance stories. Elves don’t flirt. Legolas is never breathless. He’s like 200 years old and he’s wise and serious and not subject to flight or fancy. He doesn’t fall in love. Elves don’t fall in love.”  I repeated the last sentence for emphasis.

My sister jumped in, “What do you mean, elves don’t fall in love. What about Aragorn and Arwen? Didn’t they fall in love?”

Ah, I hadn’t seen it. When people start watching the movies, instead of reading the books, misconceptions are created. Perhaps movies were another sort of fan fiction.

I struggled to explain myself. “They were an exception,” I said. “And that whole romance thing – it doesn’t happen in the book. Well, it happens in an appendix – which is separate. But it wasn’t like that.”

Or maybe I had gotten it wrong? What would J.R.R. Tolkein say? I felt guilty, like I didn’t know Middle Earth as well as I should.

Really, what was I complaining about? My niece wanted to know more about Legolas’ back story. Is that so bad? I mean, that’s harmless compared to all the V.C. Andrews books that my sister and I had been exposed to at her age. At the age of twelve, I would have gobbled up any “sideline” stories I could find about Laura Ingalls and Almonzo Wilder or Princess Leia and Han Solo.  And yet, what if they had gotten Leia’s personality all wrong? Inconsistent with her character’s history and development. It seemed wrong. Maybe it’s because I knew how much work an author puts into creating their characters. Let me tell you – months. They have whole histories – even the characters that appear in only one chapter.

I’ll have to see what others think about fan fiction. Perhaps, I’m biased. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts … fan fiction – admirable homages or dangerous delusions?

Everyday Words

I grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in west Edmonton. Our split-level house, painted white with black trim, gleamed when the sparkly glass bits embedded in the stucco reflected our bright Albertan sun. The house carried all the same characteristics of those in my neighbourhood in the 1970s: thick carpets (ours was orange), wallpaper with either flowers or plaid (different in each room), lineoleum kitchen floor (cream, of course) and doors with only one lock, not three.

My domain was downstairs in the basement where I did most of my “playing” – and where I grew up, so to speak. And on the basement wall – the dark panels of fake wood – my parents had hung a small decorative piece of stained glass. As I got older, I realized the orange, yellow and red blobs were not in fact just shapes – but formed letters. And as I learned how to form letters into words – I realized the words were “joy” “hope” and “faith”.

I grew up with those words on the wall every day. When I bashed the ping pong ball into the ceiling, when I cried because I wasn’t allowed to stay up late and finish watching “Love boat”, when I tried to sneak out of the house to meet my friends down the street … those words were on the wall.

Being Filipino, Catholicism is more than a religion – it’s a culture. In my house, faith was part of the house. Literally. In the décor. On top of the coffee table. On the walls. I didn’t realize until I was older that not everyone had three artistic versions of the Last Supper, nor crucifixes in every room, nor a statue of Jesus at toddler age – dressed in green Bermuda shorts and a tank top —  in their homes.

Now as an adult, my impression is that Canadian culture of my generation doesn’t really value demonstration of religion. It happens – but my impression is that it’s not sophisticated.

I have a girlfriend who is working for a year in Botswana. In her blog, (or maybe in an email?) she remarked how different it was to start the day with a prayer. She isn’t particularly religious – but hearing people’s concerns, hopes … areas in their life where they need support … it brought her a different perspective on her co-workers, on how she related to them and on her workplace.

I wonder – if instead of adorning workplace walls with mission statements and visions – we instead put up simple concepts like – hope, joy and faith? I simultaneously laugh and grow wistful at the thought.

Words like peace. Respect. Forgiveness. Ohhhh – I’d love to see that word on my wall.

Forgive me, please oh funder, that my report is late. And I’l forgive you, oh government, for cutting all the funding to my agency.

That’s when I would also need words like – visionary, effort, and yet again, back to hope.

What words would you like to see on your wall at work? And would that make work easier or harder?

To a better future …

“Really? You write fantasy and science fiction?”

I get that a lot. I’m not sure what it is – because I’m a woman? Because I’m Filipino? Because I look like I’d rather be reading Jane Austen? (which I also love).

I usually launch into an explanation of how I got hooked onto speculative fiction. I loved stories like Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables … but after I read them and tried to imagine *myself* in those settings – it didn’t work. I would have been working in the laundry, instead of picking wildflowers. Filipino girls didn’t live in the prairies back then. And if they did … well, it wouldn’t be a pretty life, I imagine. There were other books – Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, etc. – but there still were no characters like me.

So, I turned to science fiction and fantasy … they had different universes, different rules, different expectations. I could be Princess Leia. I could hold a sword. I could fight dragons. Me – exactly how I looked, exactly how I came into this world, exactly *me* – I could do all of those things. And so I read those books.

And, so when I started writing books – I was faced with the big question. Who would be the heroine? If I made her a short asian girl – would other readers relate? Would people want to read those books? I will not lie – for the first couple of years, I thought the answer was no. I mentioned her skin colour (“a warm brown”) – but I left it at that. I wanted my readers to identify with the protagonist. Because somewhere, along my journey as a writer and a person, I was led to believe that readers – people – were not interested in the experience of someone that is different.

That, my friends, is the real price we pay when racism exists.

The price isn’t someone making fun of what I brought for lunch or being told that I’m taking a *real* Canadian’s place in university classes. It isn’t being asked for five pieces of ID when I go into a bar, after the person in front of me strode in with only 1 piece of ID. (All of which have happened to me). The true cost of racism is revealed when a young writer – assumes – internalizes – that their experiences aren’t valued. Aren’t worth sharing. And then, the whole community loses out – on stories, on art, on experiences, on joy.

Thank goodness, I no longer feel this way. My characters are strongly different – and I am even writing (shocker!) non-genre fiction, with characters like me. Will Canadian readership be interested? Will it be considered a “prairie” story? No one knows unless I try it out.

An old friend asked me last week, “Can you name a female mentor that you’ve had, who is Asian or Filipino, that isn’t from your family?”

I paused. I’ve had wonderful mentors in my life – wonderful women who have taught me integrity, critical thinking, ethics, courage. But besides my mother and my aunts, only one from my professional life had been Asian. And I only met her five years ago. My friend had a similar experience. Last week, I asked that same question about mentors to some of my friends who are women and are racialized. When they thought about the answer – they all got a little sad.

I want more for the young women and men of today. I want them to be able to pick from an abundance of role models – female and male, all different nationalities, all different abilities. Limitless. Boundless. In all professions, with all kinds of dreams. We must have more.

March 21 is the International Day for the Elimination of Racism … and I hope 20 years from now, I can speak of a better world, a better future. One that Gene Roddenberry and Martin Luther King Jr. would both be proud of.


I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. ” Martin Luther King Jr.



I see them, Harry Potter

untitledIn the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling introduced the concept of Thestrals. Thestrals were creatures that could only be seen by those who had witnessed or touched by death. And of course, to those who haven’t been touched by death, Thestrals could not be seen at all. At the time I read about it, Thestrals seemed like a simple enough concept. A clever twist for a young adult fantasy novel. But, only recently have I understood how true this metaphor is in real life. 

My mom was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of December this year. My sister told me on my cell phone as I got off the bus on a wintry night (5:00 pm) and I walked on snow covered sidewalks on my way home. At the time, I felt quite practical about it all. Having worked in cancer prevention and screening, I was very aware of the survival rates of cancer patients and knew that a diagnosis of cancer does *not* mean death. My mom is seventy-two. If she were to live another five years in good health, I would be happy. Unless the cancer had spread widely, (which it hadn’t), this disease would really have no impact on how much time I had in the future with my mother. 

But, cancer isn’t a disease that’s well understood. I had done tons of research around this even before it affected me so personally. Cancer is … as is everything unknown … scary. And for many people, cancer has meant “death”. Or, at least it reminds us that death is around the corner. Unacknolwedged and definitely uncontrolled. And that lurking reminder has interesting impacts on different people.

In University, I took a course in sociology from my favorite professor, and at the beginning of the class he said: ”If there is one class you will remember for the rest of your life after your degree is done, I guarantee it will be this one.” Fifteen years later, he is spot on. The class was “The Sociology of Death and Dying.” [I can’t tell you the number of employers who later on looked at my transcript and said “what is this class here?”].

The class examined what it means to die in our society and in other cultures.  I had been immersed in the concepts of death and dying for four months and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It doesn’t mean I want to die or I’m ok with it. But, I certainly have known that Death is a citizen of humanity. He’s here and he’s not going away. 

So when my mom got cancer, I noticed an interesting trend. The people most comfortable with me and with discussing my mom –  were those who had death touch their lives.  They called and asked directly how she was, asked if I needed anything, and reminded me that I could call on them for help. I loooked at their lives and realized: “ah yes, they’ve all lost a parent. They were not afraid to say what other people were thinking. “

You must be scared.

It is an emotional time.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It’s ok if you think the worst and want to prepare for it.

That doesn’t mean to say that I didn’t have other friends, who had healthy parents, who weren’t supportive. They were. I am blesesed with an amazing circle of friends and family. But those who had lost someone – they had that look in their eyes of “I Know.”

And, they did know. They knew I was terrified. Tired. Emotional. Exhausted. Brave. And tired of being brave. All at the same time.

They see it too, just like Harry Potter. Thestrals, Death, Fear. Whatever.

And although I’m sure they didn’t want to welcome me to their community, it was nice to be welcomed with support all the same.