Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Massa's Tools

It was Audre Lorde who said something like, "We must use massa's tools to dismantle massa's house." Loose translation: We're in a world ruled by the aesthetics, languages, laws, etc of the imperialistic powers and we have to use those laws, aesthetics, languages, etc to show our minority truths. Or "fight fire with fire."

It's a bit like the African Proverb: As long as lions don't speak, only the hunters' stories will be heard.

Well, here I am: sitting at my computer and trying to see what tools I'll be using on my new WIP, Inheritance.

In Wind Follower, I tried my best to use high fantasy language to write about the heroic victims of imperialism. I tried to show those cultures who aren't normally considered worthy of mythic fantastical literature to a world that often only thinks fantasy literature as a European genre. In a world where dark-skinned black women are called "ho's", and looked down upon (I'm talking about you Martin Lawrence with your sheneneh, and you Eddie Murphy of Norbit fame), I wanted to show black women as being virginal, sought after (yeah, by non-black guys) and deeply loved. Of course I had other issues in Wind Follower too. Religion, primarily. I wanted to show how religion interweaves with folklore and popular worship and human interpretations and predilictions of the common man. Well, I think I kinda succeeded. For the nonce anyway. With every new book, an author has to learn how to write all over again.

So, now I'm into Inheritance and again all my minority and ethnic issues have popped up. This time my love for common people is really pushing me. It wants to be in the book. It wants to be raised to the status of high art. Kinda like the Grapes of Wrath of urban fantasy literature. I want to write about normal folks --white country folks, black folks-- in a weird spiritual and supernatural situation. Now, how am I gonna do that?

Which of Massa's tools should I use? I'd like to use urban street language or black folklore speak or white country talk. I'd like to attempt to raise the langauge of the book to a level of loveliness that is as beautiful and geographically/linguistically precise as high fantasy is to Celtic United Kingdom. But dang! Can I do it? And do I have to use folklore-rap-or country talk? How brave can I be? A part of me wants to use high langauge in upstate New York and among the urban streets. But would it work? I'm sure it could work...in the hands of a good writer. But dang, folks, how good a writer am I? And how much risk am I willing to take? And how weird am I willing to let the story be?

I went all out with Wind Follower and that was an exercise in bravery. I wanted to see if I could put all of my soul into a story. Sometimes I flinched when I realized that certain aspects of me may not fit into the story. Sex and religion. Feminism and a patriarchal God. Declaring my love of the imperialist's religion yet my dislike of the imperialists themselves and my dislike of spirits, clerics, shamans, priests and all who intervened between God and humans. Trust me: it was very brave to write about such things and not seem polemical, naive, a traitor-to-the-cause, an angry-black-woman, simple-bible-believing-black-woman-who-don't-know-no-better, or deluded. However, the book cohesed gracefully (if i do say so myself) and my bravery was rewarded with its publication. Can I walk out in faith again and do something utterly totally "me" again?


Jed said...

I like what you're saying here, and I like the idea of telling your stories using the master's tools.

But fwiw, Audre Lorde said the opposite: she said, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." There are some interesting thoughts on what she meant in an essay at Monkeyfist.com (among many other places, of course).

When I was checking that quote, I came across a page about an interesting-sounding book called Not Only the Master's Tools: African American Studies in Theory and Practice in which the editors apparently ask: "Why not instead devote attention to using those and other tools to build new, more open houses?" Which I think is kind of what you're doing, and I think it's a great idea.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Oh my! Jed! Thanks. I didn't realize that. I've been thinking the wrong way about that quote. Now I'm thinking that maybe the only way to dismantle massa's house -- in a way the MASTER will recognize that his house is being dismantled -- is to use the tools. So now I am seriously thinking Audre was wrong. Thanks so much, Jed. Nice meeting you. Just hope I can actually get all this stuff in the story and that I'm not overstuffing it and putting all my issues in one basket. -C

digable said...

Realizing it might not be the same for everyone, I thought Shenaynay was looked down upon (to use your words) for her attitude rather than her looks. I also realize the character's total package--looks, attitude, style and over the top rudeness--portrays a very stereotypical and negative depiction of African American women.

There are positive representations of strong, beautiful even virginal African American women, though. More often than not, we don't have to look any further than our own mothers and sisters.

But often we have to look hard to find those representations in mainstream media. It's great that you're helping to change that through your writing.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Hi Digable:

Martin had that dark skin prejudice where any dark skinned woman was made to have a bad attitude. Take a look at the color spectrum in his films...at his love interest actresses. IT's a bit like the black guys who made the penitentiary movies. All the bad black guys were darkskinned. And all the good ones were light. I think I remember that...but maybe there's an instance where that didn't pop up.

Very true, what you said about our own mothers and sisters. And the sweet little old ladies in church who are the backbone of the black community.

Gregory said...

All the most successful writers, artists, etc. are the bold ones who trust their own visions and go out on that limb. Was looking at a show about George Lucas the other night, and he took a chance on his vision of Star Wars even though not only the studios didn't support him, but he had to create the special effects house to produce the movie's effects because such things didn't exist at the time. He was not only brave, but a visionary. Those are the people who are most successful.

And you said so yourself. It worked before with Wind Follower. Why do you think God would leave you hanging now? As long as you stay on the path he's set for you, all will be well.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Ah, Greg! You're sweet. I guess I'm afraid to enter into that trust mode required to write a novel. Also I have to allow the novel to go where it wants to go and not be pressured by readers' desires. I asked two of my friends what they like about WF and they said, "the bare emotions, the neediness, the spiritual honesty." Stuff like that. So if I can be like that in all my novels, well...who knows?