What Would Octavia Do?
Shweta Narayan, May 2008
Clarion, week three. Everything should be marvelous. My class is great; the level of writing is high, all nineteen of us — ten men, nine women, of several ethnicities and ranging over three generations — get along well. Critiques are positive, aimed at improving work, and we have a range of story types to match our diversity.
But I’m getting deeply uncomfortable. Specifically, about our portrayals of the other; I’m seeing a trend of men writing women who are nonexistent, stereotyped, or victimized. No single story is upsetting me, exactly; it’s the overall effect, which seems rooted in unconsidered assumptions.
Should I speak up?
The little-Indian-girl voice, the voice of my cultural conditioning, says no. It says don’t make a fuss, and don’t make a scene. Nobody else is objecting. Do you want to make people uncomfortable? Nobody likes difficult girls.
But there’s another voice. It says, you’re an Octavia Butler Memorial Scholar. Are you really going to let this slide? Would Octavia Butler want you to hide in the corner like a good Indian girl? What would Octavia do?
Now, I have no idea what Octavia would have done. I never got to meet her. But I know what her characters do. They face hard issues face on. They ask questions, even if those questions have no clear answers, even if they’re uncomfortable. They refuse to stay invisibly safe.
They give me another narrative to work with. The Indian girl voice says how presumptuous, and who are you to talk — but story has power, and names have power, and my scholarship is not just a free trip, it’s a legacy, a responsibility. I’m here in Octavia’s memory. Her voice gives my voice a push. I raise my hand, and I object.
I don’t have the right words. I’m afraid of this; it isn’t something I’m used to doing. I’ve only just started really thinking about what it means to be a woman of color, rather than a chameleon who happens to be female-shaped and possessed of melanin. I stumble. I’m awkward. But I’ve started the dialogue. Karen Joy Fowler comes in then, mending my awkwardness with her grace, and suggests that we meet up in the evening to discuss race and gender in writing.
So we do it.
It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. We have no good answers. We’re all floundering. I come to understand why my thoughtful, gentle classmates are not writing the other: they’re afraid too. Afraid to stomp in on other people’s territory. To misrepresent, appropriate, speak over other groups, other voices. It’s not lack of awareness, it’s awareness and confusion: Is there safe ground between whitewashing and cultural appropriation? Where shall we meet, how can we find a safe path through this minefield?
And the simple answer is we can’t. None of us. We can’t write the other safely, any more than I could bring up the subject safely. If we write about a ‘them’, we risk getting them wrong. All we really can do is what we’re doing, now. Talking openly about our fears, our ideals, our blind spots. Looking for ways to overcome ignorance. Working together.
It’s one of the days that makes Clarion so much more than classes and crits. It lets us come together as a group, helping one another think about the huge scary issues and not just individual stories. Thinking beyond what we need to do to sell something. Being willing to listen, to question, to see. And the stories change somewhat. We’re all more aware, and we’re all more willing to take risks. We have a safety net. We’re allowed to care, and we’re allowed to get it wrong at first.
I think Octavia would have liked that.
Shewta Narayan was one of the first recipients of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.