Friday, September 11, 2009

Aesthetics

I've been thinking a lot about aesthetics lately.

It's not a secret that publishing is a highly subjective business. What gets bought, promoted, and sold has a lot to do with opinion. Someone, somewhere along the line, connects with a particular book, maybe thinks it's "big," and puts their heart and soul into convincing everyone else it's big, too. Plenty of editors and agents will accept manuscripts that need work, if there is something in the manuscript that they connect with. And what they connect with obviously has much to do with their personal experience, preferences, what they relate to, their values, what they consider funny or touching, and which characters they identify with.

So this is why I'm thinking about aesthetics. "Subjective" means it's all about what one likes. What one is drawn to, attracted by, and dazzled with enough to lay down money for it. I've seen the "color-blind" argument over and over again -- that it's not about the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality of the author, but the story. That a good story and strong writing is what wins out in the end. While I agree with this in part, I also maintain that the race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality, etc. of the author affects the story and the writing.

The way we write, what we write about, how we write about it -- all of these are infused with the sensibility of the writer. And the sensibility of the writer is informed by who that writer is, the sum of their experiences, and how they respond to those experiences.

Let's take language, for instance. I grew up speaking and thinking in Punjabi. My writing has (and always has had) layers of Punjabi thought, fluidity, and lyricism underneath the English words because it's what I know. It's where I go when I ride those emotional currents because so much of my early life and formative years were in Punjabi. I see it in the work of other South Asian authors, as well. There is the thread of a faint, but recognizable tradition in the fiction of my fellow South Asian diasporic authors. I feel it, smell it, hear it in the words they lay on the page. It's something I know.

I also find it not surprising in the least that so many books written by Women of Colour incorporate themes of spirituality, both implicitly and explicitly. Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Linda Hogan, Suheir Hamad, Maxine Hong Kingston, June Jordan, Isabelle Allende, Sandra Cisneros, and fellow South Asian women writers such as Mitali Perkins, Uma Krishnaswami, Arundhati Roy, and Shauna Singh Baldwin, among others, have all infused themes of spirituality throughout their texts at one point or another. My own novel, SHINE, COCONUT MOON, as well the two novels I've written since, JAZZ IN LOVE and INTO THE WISE DARK, have varying degrees of spiritual awakening, questioning, and/or understanding woven throughout. The fact that so many women of Colour have elements of spirituality or faith in their works is not a coincidence. It is a shared aesthetic. It is the aesthetic of struggle, born from the effects of colonization, imperialism, slavery, bearing witness to egregious injustices, and finding a way to break the silence; finding words to resurrect what is destroyed and bring back the dead beloved.

If we look at representations of women in the fashion industry, we see the "aesthetic discrepancy" clearly in terms of gender. The fashion industry is overwhelmingly dominated and controlled by men. The focus is not on what women value, but on what men value. Most women would choose comfort over pain; therefore, stilletoes and thongs would make a hasty exit. I, for one, would never go looking for a permanent wedgie and neither would any of the women I know. Stilletoes not only hurt, they do serious damage to the spine, heels, and feet. The women's fashion industry is a mega-gazillion-dollar industry based on the fostered insecurities of women. If women were dominating the fashion scene and shaping it to reflect their own aesthetic (one that has not been distorted by, or replaced with the aesthetic leanings of men), I am confident that what is produced would look drastically different from what is produced now.

Just as an experiment, I urge you to rent and watch several films written and directed by women, then compare them to several films written and directed by men. To make it even more relevant, you might try picking films that have similar themes and were released around the same time. Can you spot the differences in aesthetic? Is there a difference? I would argue that yes, there absolutely is.

Try these: Sunshine Cleaning, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs, The Piano, written and directed by Jane Campion, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, Born in Flames by Lizzie Borden, The Waitress by Adrienne Shelly, Real Women Have Curves by Josefina Lopez and directed by Patricia Cardozo, or the films of Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha. Keep in mind that I'm referring to films written by women, not just directed. But even the films based on books written by women, but directed by men, would work for this little experiment. Films like Fried Green Tomatoes (Fannie Flagg), Juno (Diablo Cody), Anywhere But Here (Mona Simpson), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Thelma and Louise (Callie Khouri), and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares).*

Noticing any patterns? That's an aesthetic, or a sensibility. It takes exposure and effort to develop an appreciation for an aesthetic that is vastly different from what one is used to. It's like learning to appreciate a foreign food or music. Many people can't stand the high-pitched voices of some South or East Asian songstresses. But when you spend years listening to different songs, learning what the lyrics mean, and discovering just how much practice and talent goes into those voices, it's easier to appreciate the beauty in their melodies. I grew up in a household where western music was scoffed at, while at school Eastern music was made into a joke. Again, it's about an aesthetic we become accustomed to.

In terms of representations of People of Colour: An experiment by psychologist Kenneth Clark in 1954 revealed that black children preferred white dolls over black dolls, saying the white dolls were "nicer" and "better." When this experiment was recreated in 2005 by a teenager, the results hadn't changed much.

Beauty that resembles white, European ideals is what sells and is promoted in mass media. Images of PoC are habitually air-brushed to be lighter, with straighter, finer, more Europeanized features. Beauty outside of that accepted ideal takes more work to integrate, promote, and sell. This was the reason a Black Is Beautiful movement was necessary in the 1960s, and the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in India is necessary now. It is also the reason campaigns like Dove's widely publicized "Campaign for real beauty" are hugely popular. They strive to develop a new aesthetic. To pump images of a new way of seeing into the world. A new system which exalts what has previously been devalued, or under-valued.

Let's bring it back to the writing. We are not encouraged to be aware of our own privilege. In fact, it serves to keep the inequitable balance of power in place if we remain oblivious to what we have at the expense of others. If you've been following the recent discussions on race, representation, and equitable distribution of resources in the YA/children's lit blogosphere, and it is important to you to help shape a more just world for our children (and ourselves!), you'll have to do your own research.

Zetta's heartfelt post, Something Like An Open Letter To the Children's Publishing Industry, on the disparities inherent within the (children's) publishing industry and discussion threads on forums have me reaching deeper for reasons why PoC are not getting published and/or promoted. There are tons of writers of Colour out there who have been honing their craft, reading books on writing, and submitting work to agents and editors for years. And yet, there are disproportionately more books by and about White folks than there are books by and about PoC. I'm wondering now if part of this could be the lack of appreciation or understanding for an unfamiliar aesthetic.

And because the images of a dominant, all-pervasive aesthetic seep into our bones, we emulate its ideals (think: Michael Jackson). We become the strongest upholders of that which subjugates us. So it's not surprising when things like that now-forgotten case of plagiarism rise up to remind us that all is not perfect in YA/kidlit world. Writers are desperate to make our dreams a reality and many of us will (happily) sell family members to see it happen. We'll write whatever you want! And if that means catering to an aesthetic that is not in keeping with our histories, traditions and upbringings, so be it!

Let me just say here that every single one of us comes from and subscribes to some sort of tradition -- not just PoC. There are Nordic traditions, Celtic, and even feminist and LGBTQ traditions. The point is that the powers that be (TPTB) have historically favoured a particular set. And those of us writing outside of that have had a much tougher time being seen, appreciated, heard, and valued unless we, in some form, adhere to the dominant aesthetic. Sherman Alexie once said that any amount of mainstream success means you've had to compromise something, in some way. I think this is what he was referring to--bending yourself and your work to fit a tradition, ideology, or aesthetic that is not innate, or indigenous to who you are.

And until and unless there is exposure to different aesthetics and an effort to understand and appreciate what is unfamiliar by TPTB, OR, until and unless the ranks of TPTB more accurately represent the reading/consuming public, what we see on the shelves will continue to reflect the dominant ideals and currently upheld aesthetic.

*Just want to note that, although there have been some great strides in recent years, women directors and filmmakers are still few and far between in the field of filmmaking -- which remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.

10 comments:

zettaelliott said...

yes, yes, yes! I think one of the missteps of the feminist movement is that we underestimated just how deeply women still subscribe to patriarchy--even if ALL men converted and saw the light, WOMEN would keep it going! Same with neo-colonialism, and the male-identified women who keep putting on thongs and stilettos and *choosing* to self-objectify. If writers of color are expected to dilute and/or diminish their difference, then, as Stuart Hall would say, diversity in kidlit will be "the kind of difference that doesn't make a difference of any kind." Writers yield because they feel the alternative is remaining unpublished...we've got to develop viable alternatives to mainstream publishers; Laura Atkins suggested a cooperative press, and I think she's onto something...did you see Cheryl Klein's post @ Brooklyn Arden. SUBMIT, girl...I am.

Tockla said...

(Laura Atkins here, in case I show up as Tockla)
Neesha, you are right on the mark here, as far as my experience in publishing goes. And I'm growing much more aware of this after having left the industry, that even so-called "multicultural books" are often guided by the interests and subjectivity of those working in the publishing houses. What kinds of stories should we publish? Those that focus on issues around race and racism. Leila Rasheed's post about why she (so far) has always written white characters shows you how this issue-oriented publishing has probably driven her away from writing characters of color (the post is here: http://bookchildworld.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/an-entirely-personal-response-to-an-important-topic/

I've also had people respond to my essay (in comments and also in anonymous emails as they are afraid to be public) saying much the same. One aspiring author said:

"i worked with my agent on the manuscript of my coming of age novel which is in the voice of a teenage girl. my agent urged me to give my character what i can only describe as a more western voice (more reactive, less reflective, bolshier) because this was what the publishers were likely to be attracted to. i did my best without compromising the authenticity of my character's cultural background. but it was tough. i believe my story is strong enough to carry through without my heroine adopting a western voice.

[name of large publishing house] responded to our submission by saying, "this is a strong novel, but it would compete the work of our other authors ... [name of established white author] already writes about [a contentinent, not Asia]." my novels are set in southeast Asia which is on the other side of the world to [above continent]. it makes me think that my ethnicity and the fact that my books are set in other countries lumps me into a vague category - the third world stuff category - which is already dominated by authors like [above-mentioned white author]."
You can read full comments here: http://www.lauraatkins.com/blog/2009/08/paper-from-irscl-conference-on-white_14.html#comments

And yes, I think some sort of publishing collective could be a very powerful way to move forward. I was wondering about the group mentioned on Zetta's blog posting, Association of Children’s Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC). What if we worked to create some sort of competition, like the New Voices Award at Lee & Low. It could be judged internally, somehow, with a panel of people from diverse backgrounds to respond to a range of aesthetics. I'd be willing to volunteer my time to help to edit the winner(s), and with a group of people involved to help with design, covers, etc... I just wonder if we could do this without putting in a huge amount of effort (we all have to work and earn money, right?), but also build on the recent outcry and get publicity. We all have our connections. If we subverted and worked around the existing systems, maybe we could show another way forward that at least changes who the gatekeepers are? Idealistic, I know. But dreams lead to changes.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Neesha what a wonderful post. Years ago I was asked this question by an editor--how would I define the aesthetic visible in my writing? I was just starting out at the time. I wasn't sure how to answer the question then and I can't remember what I said, probably something about color and perspective. But I've thought about it a lot since. I think I'd define it now in two words: crowding, in the Ursula LeGuin sense, the text that crowds, gathers the story together before it leaps. There's a lot of crowding before the leap in my writing, and the leap isn't always in the direction of "character solves problem and lives happily ever after."

The other word is ambiguity. I'm happy to hold contradictory thoughts in a single character, because that's how my mind works. Things don't have to come in dualities, good and evil are rarely absolute, and so on. I realize that drives some among TPTB* crazy but I hope it also stimulates others to think in ways they didn't before and to consider that young readers are more flexible and smarter than we give them credit for being.

(*TPTB oh thank you, that is going to be in my personal alphabet salad from here on!)

Neesha Meminger said...

I'm posting this comment for Mayra Lazara Dole, author of DOWN TO THE BONE (Harper Collins, '09) who, for some reason, could not get it to post. If anyone else if having issues posting comments please let me know and I'll post for you until I get this all figured out:

Neesha, there are TONS of authors promoting their future books with Latino/a last names who find me. i'm thrilled to meet them and ask about their heritage. eventually, after a few questions, the truth is exposed: they are white authors whose publisher's/editor's asked them to get a Spanish last name and Spanish names for characters in their novels (they blame the editors but I've only heard the authors' part of the story and it might be the other way around?) also, authors with Latino last names who don't speak a word of Spanish, don't know our customs, feel "American," and have never lived in a Latino community, are getting two, three, and four book deals for writing books with diversity and Latino characters (one i really like asked me last week if we could work together and exchange manuscripts for critiques. she’d like me to make sure the Latina characters she's researched sound authentic).

i was born in Havana Cuba of Cuban parents and grandparents. my great-grandparents were Cuban of Nigerian, Spanish, French, and English ancestry. i live, breathe, and speak "Cuban" yet, i have light skin, blondish hair, and have a French last name (DOE-leh)--two syllables. every fiber of my being is Cuban and so, much like you, my writing can’t escape it. perhaps, it's more about writing what Readers know and are familiar with, than the color of our skin. maybe an all Indian/Latina/o Twilight cast Might have still been a bestseller as long as the writing was specifically geared to mainstream America (add the color, not the culture). I must say that I'm bending from the pressure of knowing the types of white stories readers who buy books gobble up. In my perspective, it seems that white writers are writing diversity in order to fill in the gap needed, and authors of color are being pressured to become more mainstream.

Neesha. you are Beyond brilliant. thanks for your all your contributions. Gracias!

zettaelliott said...

I was just at the Brooklyn Book Festival and couldn't get over this one white YA author on the "Keepin' It Real" panel who said over and over that he just writes what his editors tell him to write, making whatever changes they request til it sounds right to them. He didn't mean to write for a YA audience, but when his agent said he could sell this author's work to a YA editor, the author got on board. And he had NO problem admitting this fact...I had NOT heard about editors prompting white writers to adopt a false Latino identity--that's totally reprehensible, and seemingly unnecessary--whites get to write about whomever they like! This makes me so angry and disgusted...I don't *want* to have to start our own press--we should be focusing on WRITING and nothing else--but maybe we really have no choice. BLECH!

Doret said...

As a reader of color there moments in books that I truly appreicate. I would call them cultural nods. They are there for everyone but they are a special gift to readers who are of the same race as the author. It those little moments as a reader of color that I cherish, everyone will see it but only a few will truly get it. That can't be fake.

Reading Mayra's comment got me thinking about a fun test-

Give a reader some stories where the MC is a person of color. See if they can pick out the ones written by white authors and the ones written by authors of color.

Anonymous said...

Zeta, "he just writes what his editors tell him to write, making whatever changes they request til it sounds right to them?" i've never heard of such a thing. i can't even imagine an editor doing that (sounds unethical). i consider everything editors and my critique focus group comment on, but it's up to me to change it or leave it. when a large group of people critique my novels and vote against, let's say, too much narration and exclamation points and not enough dialogue, i listen, but i'd NEVER write what they want and i can't imagine them telling me what to write. is it common for authors to write what editors want instead of their own stories? who is the author? (if he talked about it in public he must feel proud to use his editors' ideas). i'm intrigued!
neesha, this won't go through. will try anonymous now. : (
Mayra

zettaelliott said...

Mayra--it was a strange moment, b/c at first the author appeared to be joking, but as he repeated it over and over, I think even the moderator said something like, "Authors everywhere are wishing you'd stop saying that!" since the general perception is that authors RESIST such interference from their editors. Coe Booth was also on the panel, and she admitted her editor was present and she respected him, but it definitely didn't sound like she just followed his directions without question. I don't think this author meant to suggest the very topics of his books were taken from his editors, but he seemed so desperate to get published, he trusted their opinion over his own.

Anonymous said...

Zeta, if it boils down to taking editors' suggestions or i won't get published, watch me bend!
Mayra

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your excellent words, Neehsa. You wrote everything I've been shouting into torando winds for years. I thought no one was listening. You articulate my thoughts. I will be sure to carry around the URL of this post for every single time here in Texas someone tells me that I'm over reacting!
Thank you again for your courage.
Jo Ann Hernandez
BronzeWord Latino Authors
http://authorslatino.com/wordpress
BronzeWord1 AT yahoo com
I'm having trouble with this so going anonymous, however I always have trouble with this type of widget. Thank you

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