August 09, 2007

"He peered coyly through the extraordinarily long lashes which complimented his caramel skin..."

Via de Bond grrrl, I came across this random list of YA banalities at Joëlle Anthony's site.
Example: from being part of the 'red-headed stepchild' class, red hair has risen through the ranks until apparently we all lust for it. However, it's just not that common, except by introduction of henna or Clairol or somesuch. Yet my YA peeps? Seem to have found an endless store of flame-haired sidekicks in a back closet somewhere. Writers: Just say no.

And the über long man-lashes -- hilarious, since my S.O. really DOES have inch-long lashes that might make fake lashes look tame by comparison -- but yes, it's no longer a big deal. Lads: Better lashes at times than the lasses. Usually without Max Factor. Let's draw a veil and move on to YA quirks such as raising the eyebrow (usually the right eyebrow, since that's the only one I can consistently raise), replacing the usage of 'Mom and Dad' with 'Laura and Luke,' and nail/lip/thumb/something biting 'til blood flows. And I'm sure you could list your own idiosyncratic YA traits from your own reading.

There are umpty million clichés in the windy city (or wherever you are - it's pretty breezy over here today), but the one that bugged me just a bit... and then a bit more... was #14 -- the 'cafe au lait' skin tone. The 'coffee and cream' complexion. The African-American-as-caffeinated-beverage cliché. Actually, it's not even limited to African Americans - let's say the half or whole - Pakistani- Bangladeshi- First- Nations- Hispanic- Generic- Brown- Person as caffeinated beverage.

(Note that nobody is ever listed as, say, the color of Coke? Although I have seen root beer colored eyes. Which is to say: um, brown.)

As a person of color, blogging with another person of color... writing novels wherein persons of color live and move and have their being... have I ever committed the faux pas of describing shades of skin tone as a drink? Oh, probably yes. I freely admit to having been a lazy writer in some past life. Is any of the writing where I described persons-as-drinks going to be published? Good grief, I hope not. Not because it isn't an apt enough description -- (although, if I ever see someone with skin the color of a latte, I will, in fact, call for medical assistance -- a latte lacks color depth and looks rather chalky; if I see a person that shade, I'll assume they're about to pass out) -- but because it is ultimately a lazy way of thinking, a lazy way of writing/speaking, and millimeters away from relying on racial tropes, clichés and stereotypes that reflect an unexamined inner life. As Joëlle mentioned,
" seems to be a way white authors have of treading lightly around skin color.
I haven't noticed this in any books by black authors or about black people.
I notice it in books where all the characters are white and they have one latte colored friend. It's almost like white people are afraid to call someone black. Does that make sense?"
Yes - the statement makes sense, no, it doesn't make sense to avoid... race.

I always love Stephen Colbert's assertion that he doesn't see color (it's just alarming when other people use this statement seriously, isn't it? Do they not realize he speaks in shades of IRONY?), but the truth is that there is a school of thought which seems to require writers to embrace such a depth of PC that they can't even use words anymore. (Not to mention the school of thought that is against actual scientific terms [Ah, scrotum], or the group that objects to sort of made-up descriptors [Happy to be Nappy? - yes, it's a word. Yes, it has a meaning only understood by some. No, it does not threaten you or your child. Moving on.]) It's true that we all want to be sensitive to offending people, but honestly -- Susan Patron didn't wake up one morning in the mood to offend. I doubt Holly Black or e. lockhart, or Maureen Johnson or even The Great JK just said one day, "Hey! Let's offend the East Texas PTA this week!"

So, in a way? I feel like there's no remedy from being offensive. And maybe we should stop trying so hard not to offend...

Others have discussed this before, referencing biracial characters, etc., and have wondered how to delicately set their feet. So, maybe let's all agree to state that there is no need to be delicate, there is only a need for common sense and open-heartedness and a conscious willingness to "do unto others/speak about others." We can't avoid race. We can't pretend that since it's not directly affecting us that we've somehow transcended it, to arrive on a rarefied, colorless plain. That just doesn't happen. So. We've now got to actually engage our brains and think about how we want to express that which we see (or that which we are), and ways to do it that celebrate it, embrace it, or at least don't trivialize it and make it a lazy cliché.

Tall order.

Thanks, Joëlle, for starting the conversation.
Thoughts from anyone else?


a. fortis said...

Yay, I just read her article on the subject in the latest SCBWI bulletin. I was happy that out of 20 cliche no-nos, I only committed one in my current novel--list-making. However, as TadMack knows, the lists are important to the plot.

Oh, I guess there's also a heaping helping of latte in my book, too, but again--part of the plot. In fact, without it, there would be no plot, nor title, nor point. So there! ;) It was irony, not actual descriptive language.

Thanks for putting this up, T!

Joelle said...

I love your piece, thank you! And my comment on the first comment posted here is that I only meant to make people aware of these things, not tell them not to do them. I have a list or two in my stuff too. That's the deal, some of these things are overused because they're the first thing you think of (lazy), but some are overused because they're really useful. Now it's all about choice.

Mitali Perkins said...

Thanks for this challenge and great reminder:

"...think about how we want to express that which we see (or that which we are), and ways to do it that celebrate it, embrace it, or at least don't trivialize it and make it a lazy cliché."

I am seeking to improve my craft significantly this academic year and avoiding lazy writing is one of my top goals.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

It does seem like no matter what one does, no one's happy. For example:

1) If you mention race, you're committing an act of tokenism. If you don't mention race, you're shutting people out.

2) On the one hand, your writing is supposed to be multicultural. However, once you write about a culture outside of your own, then you're committing the outrage of writing outside of your culture (whether or not you've taken the time to do the proper research).

I'm painting these instances with broad brush-strokes, of course, but I'm frustrated by all of the mixed-messages.

In my writing, I've usually steered clear of detailed physical character descriptions. I'm a light-skinned woman of European descent on one side of my family and Mideastern descent on the other. Most of my characters have brown or black hair and brown eyes. You (the reader) fill in the skin color, whether or not their eyelashes were long, etc.

eisha said...

This is really nicely put, and a thoughtful addition to the discussions that the list-of-20 has generated. Thanks, TadMack.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

P.S. This is what Diana Wynne Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has to say about complexion:
Corpse-white is Evil, and it grades from there. Pink-faced folk are usually midway and pathetic. The best face-colour is brown, preferably tanned, but it can be inborn. Other colours such as black, blue, mauve and yellow barely exist. So, if your acquaintance is wearing green and is blue-eyed and brown-faced, she/he will be OK.

And earlier, Wynne Jones writes, Red hair always entails magical powers, even if they are only latent.

a. fortis said...

Ha! I love that, Alkelda! I'm going to have to look for a copy of that book--I keep hearing about it but haven't read it yet (though I love her other work).

Little Willow said...

Ah, Colbert.

TadMack said...

I am going to BUY The Tough Guide to Fairyland at my earliest convenience, Alkelda, I really appreciate your thoughts on this. And that's my goal for this year, too, Mitali!