I first discovered author Jeff Seymour through his kickstarter for his novel Soulwoven which we reviewed and enjoyed here, and I found Jeff to be an insightful and well-reasoned sort of guy. He was a big enough fan of my treatment of his novel that he made sure I was on the list to get a review copy of the sequel, Soulwoven: Exile, which we are reviewing today, and it occurred to me to see if he would be willing to submit an article or guest post of his own to accompany it. In light of recent events in the news, I feel Jeff’s chosen subject is extremely apropos, and his article makes some excellent points on the subject of how we treat race in creative works. So please, read and enjoy, and if you have thoughts, criticisms, etc., please do leave a comment.
By: Jeff Seymour, Intro by Dan Ruffolo
Well, it may not always be a problem when the black guy dies. I’m sure it’s possible to write a story in which it isn’t—say one in which everybody dies, or in which death is really equivalent to life, or…well…even those could be problematic (on account of containing someone who can be thought of as “the black guy” at all). So suffice to say it’s tough.
Here’s the basic problem: “the black guy” dies in too many stories. Movies, TV shows, video games, books. All guilty. Taken as a whole, my culture kills a lot of black guys. And I’m going to stop even pretending to be flippant now, because that’s literally true.
That’s not a problem I, as one author, can solve on my own, but I can help by not perpetuating certain narratives.
See, there’s a thing that happens where people see a narrative repeated enough times and begin to believe it. Imagine, if you have to, watching the premature, violent death of the only person in the movie/book/whatever who looks and sounds like you, over and over again. What does that tell you to expect in terms of survival? How long should you plan for? Should you expect to live as long as the people who don’t look like you? And if you identify with a character who lives, what do you learn about your place in the world? Compare it to that of the person who identifies with the character who dies.
Cue the edit letter for my first novel, in which it was noted that I’d killed off the character most likely to be read as black (I describe skin tones in relative terms, but this character is written as having dark skin and dreadlocks) at the end of the book. Worse, I realized, he’d sacrificed himself to save a white kid (or put more accurately, to save a character much younger than him likely to be read as white).
So where to go from there? The character involved had lots of good reasons for doing what he did. He’d been traumatized by the death of his son and didn’t want to live anymore, and he was a very emotional, good-at-heart sort plagued by guilt to begin with. In the early drafts of the book, he hadn’t had dark skin at all. This was not a problem I had anticipated.
How could I solve it, then, without ruining the book? For as we’re all told, political correctness is destroying creativity, or at least America. I couldn’t see that character, in that situation, doing anything else, and while I could rewrite the situation to allow for his survival, it would mean focusing on a defeated man who wished he was dead for part of the next book, which has enough bleakness in it without that.
How to solve the problem?
I got creative.
I read the book again and realized I could not, in good conscience or if I wanted to be a decent storyteller, let that moment go without interrogation. On the one hand, it was a problematic trope. On the other, it was a tired one. I took inventory of my characters and realized there were a few off the page who could change the fate of that first character in a very interesting way. My initial realization blossomed and grew and spun itself into a web that touched many of the characters and themes already present in the second book, as good story ideas often do.
So I wrote.
I moved my chess pieces, and I added a subplot to Soulwoven: Exile that allowed me (and several of the characters) to explore just why and how it was wrong for that character to sacrifice himself the way he did. Whom he should have been sacrificing himself for, and what form his sacrifice should have taken. It is, in my mind, one of the two or three best plotlines in the book, not for the politics of it but because it’s fertile narrative ground, it pushed me creatively, and it provides a helpful counterpoint to action that occurs elsewhere.
Being politically correct more often than not means refraining from recycling stereotypes and tired ideas. In turn, that forces you to be creative, because there’s nothing remotely imaginative about stereotyping, or using the same language you’ve always used to talk about a person or a group, or refusing to attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Political correctness can enhance creativity, and it did in Soulwoven: Exile. So the next time someone tells you “PC is predicated on the restraint of words, ideas, and modes of thinking, and reduces the scope and capability of the human mind,” remember this moment. You now have a concrete example to give them (and more importantly yourself) of it doing exactly the opposite.