It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”
How hard can it be?
Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:
(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.
I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.
Thank you for reading this.)
I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.
How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.
When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.
Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?
My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.
After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.
Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.
A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.
How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.
This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”
When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.
How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.