I’ve been enjoying the stories in the We See a Different Frontier anthology of postcolonial science fiction, and thinking about how I could contribute to the blog carnival that the editors had devised to accompany its release. I’d already written about the constraints on expectation, the presumption of a small and specific sphere of interest, that marginalised cultures can have for the literary output of their own people, and I didn’t want to repeat myself. I’m also aware that, as a person of relative privilege within both my birth country of Jamaica and my adopted homeland of the UK, I’m not particularly well-placed to rail against inequity. Besides, the big injustices are easy to spot. It’s harder to unpick the small, everyday presumptions about what is standard and what is strange, the subtle and mostly unremarked prejudices that inform judgements and guide aspirations.
Given that the ethos of the anthology is to shift the reader’s perspective from the dominant to the dominated, I thought I would write about just how challenging that can be, both in life and in fiction; and how important it is to explain and persuade, when sometimes what we really want to do is bludgeon and blame. But I couldn’t quite find a way in to what I wanted to say; it all felt a bit amorphous, as difficult for me to pin down in prose as it can be to identify in action.
And then I went to Bristolcon, and had a conversation that brought it all into very sharp focus.
The conversation was with someone I’d met there the previous year, and run into a time or two since. Since our initial acquaintance my first novel, Gemsigns, had been published and he came over to say that he’d purchased it. He confessed that he hadn’t yet read very far—only a couple dozen pages or so, I reckon—but had already encountered something that puzzled him.
‘Why,’ he wanted to know, ‘didn’t she just dye her hair?’
He was referring to a scene in chapter 1 which introduces one of the main characters—a genetically modified human, known colloquially as a gem. Easily distinguishable from ‘normal’ humans by her glowing, flame-red hair, we follow her as she makes her way through the streets of a London in which her liberty to move as freely as its norm citizens is newly granted and fragile. Her hair marks her out as other, and the reader sees, in the way she avoids the most crowded areas and moves swiftly through those she cannot avoid, her wariness and the way that some norms politely pretend not to see her at all, that there are real consequences, and possible dangers, to being so easily identifiable.
To my interlocutor the uncertainties and unpleasantness of this state of being were easily rectifiable, and I actually think he believed he’d spotted a plot error on my part. To him, the solution to the character’s situation was simple.
Why wouldn’t she simply have dyed her hair? Hidden herself? Blended in? Erased her challenging otherness from view, and pretended to be (all together now) just like everyone else?
Most of you reading this post will by now, I suspect, be spluttering in indignation, fingers itching to add furious comments, because to you the answer will be obvious. If you’re reading The Future Fire, if you’re already a fan of We See a Different Frontier, chances are this is stuff you get. Chances are you understand it not just intellectually, but in your bones, in your soul.
My acquaintance, needless to say, did not. It took me a good fifteen minutes of trying—constructing the explanation in as many different ways as I could think of, coming up with analogies and examples to illustrate the point—before I could get him to understand why not everyone would see the suppression of her identity as a desirable solution, and why many would find the suggestion downright outrageous. And I want to pause here to stress, lest my anonymous acquaintance be pilloried by the internet, that he is not, to the best of my knowledge, a bad guy. On the contrary, we met because he was kind to me; inviting a con newbie who knew no one to sit and chat with him and his friends, complimentary of things he’d heard me say in a panel discussion.
So I don’t think his reaction to my character was rooted in any meanness or malice, conscious or unconscious. I think it came from a kind of innocent obliviousness. The notion that her own, unique identity, even with its attendant dangers and challenges, even though she didn’t ask for it, even though it is rooted in manufactured mutations, would nevertheless be hers—and as such be a thing of intrinsic value, worth taking risks for, worth changing laws for, worth fighting and dying for—was something he simply could not comprehend. His twin points were first, that it would be easy for her to change her appearance and she’d have an easier life if she did; and second, since her mark, her gemsign, wasn’t something she chose to be born with, why would she feel any kind of loyalty to it?
I was stunned to discover that someone I like, and think of as a good, kind person, would find it so difficult to understand that someone who is ‘other’ will nevertheless have as fundamental a sense of themself as would anyone who fits into whatever is considered the mainstream, the standard, the dominant, the—here it comes—the norm.
That being born with a condition you did not choose does not make that condition any less a part of who you are.
That the trade-off for disguising who you are and where you come from is not just an easier life; it’s potentially a denigration of that very sense of self. And a bolstering of the hegemonic view that who you are, who you were, is of no real worth.
And therefore is not worth fighting for.
I’ve been trying to remember exactly what it was I finally said that brought him up short; made him stop arguing his corner, stand in the other person’s shoes and really think about what it would feel like to be so targeted—and why, even caught in that bulls-eye, you might still choose defiance over acquiescence. I was working so hard to shift his perspective without losing my temper that I can’t disentangle the winning argument from all the ones that were almost-but-not-quite there, but I think it was along the lines of that last point. I think it was something like, ‘Why would you reinforce presumptions that the dominant group is naturally superior, and your lower status is therefore deserved, by acting as though you agreed with them?’ Which constructs the issue in more adversarial terms than I like, and doesn’t really take the right to identity as a core principle, but—hallelujah!—it worked. He went quiet, and thoughtful, and the conversation ended with a mumbled, ‘OK—I can see that.’
Which was, when I thought about it afterwards, probably the best outcome I could have hoped for. Someone saw something differently. It wasn’t easy, for him or for me. But it was worth it, because I have to believe—I have to believe—that if you can shift a person’s perspective just enough for them to spot their own prejudices, recognise their own presumptions, you have made a difference. That it’ll be easier for them to make that adjustment on their own in the future. That it won’t always need to be you and people who are like you, people who are other, doing the explaining and the persuading.
That next time, it’ll be them explaining it to someone else.
Stephanie Saulter © 2013