In A Book of Her Own: Words and Images to Honor the Babaylan, Leny Mendoza Strobel writes:
[But] everyday in my suburban space, I am still the Other. Foreign. The word “Oriental” is still being used much too often. I am constantly fighting to become visible, giving up only when I'm tired. I hide for days in my cave, writing in my journal, sending emails to faceless friends, because I do not want to be subject to that Gaze.
The first time I was asked to write a bio for publication, I felt it was important to say that I was a Filipina writer. At that time, I could not put words to the reason behind that decision. Today, I find myself better able to articulate it. Location does not change who I am.
Before I sat down to write this column, I read Alex Dally MacFarlane's wonderful poem, “Tadi,” and it was like finding that line I needed to join together the bits and pieces that I jotted down as I reflected on woman's work and what it means to be a woman of color at work in the genre.
When Alex Dally MacFarlane writes:
I struggle with words:
but not quite true,
My soul opens up and embraces the emotion reflected there, and I can't help but think of all the words I struggle with on a regular basis. I think of the times when I have had to struggle against the desire to hide myself away from that Gaze that looks at me and identifies me as being Other.
My refuge and my inspiration has often come from the works of women poets, activists, and writers, people who do not flinch from the truth and who are not afraid to speak the truth no matter how much that truth-speaking hurts.
I recognize that as women who have chosen to write science fiction and fantasy we are constantly struggling for our voices to be recognized and acknowledged.
Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women's Writing writes of the many ways in which women's work is diminished and made to appear to be of lesser importance. While we say that the work of woman has been given a place in genre and that now we no longer discriminate between male and female when it comes to publication, I still find myself wondering how long it will be before we no longer need to raise our voices and protest the constant subjection of woman's work to male gaze and male approval.
I want to repeat what other women have been saying before me: Woman's work does not need to be validated by men.
There are other things that complicate the work for me. When I am asked how important it is to me that women should support each other's work, I find myself looking beyond the reply that comes readily to hand.
In the chapter on aesthetics, Joanna Russ writes:
The re-evaluation and rediscovery of minority art (including the cultural minority of women) is often conceived as a matter of remedying injustice and exclusiveness through doing justice to individual artists by allowing their work into the canon, which will thereby be more complete, but fundamentally unchanged.
I have sometimes been told that the reason my work is accepted or published is because I am a woman of color. I stand out because I am from a third-world country and the field wants to be diverse and inclusive. If there were small boxes to fill in, I would fill in a lot of them.
I remember feeling quite taken aback the first time I heard this spoken out by someone whom I had thought of as a friend. My response at that time was to say that anything that got me published was certainly a plus.
For a while, I became even more critical of my own work, feeling that nothing I wrote was really good enough or worthy enough. It was only later, in looking back, that I recognized that criticism for what it was.
As a non-native English speaker, I find these remarks echoed in subtler ways: a) when people praise me for my command of the language and my ability to express myself well in English and b) when people tell me that as a non-native English speaker I miss the nuances of the language (the implication being that the work will never really measure up).
This is how complex it becomes when we speak of the work of women and the work of women who come from outside of the US or the UK. If the work of women is pressed into the margins, how much more pressed into the margins are the works of women of color? How much more pressed into the margins are the works of women who do not come from within the native English-speaking hegemony?
We are told over and over again that our anger is misplaced. That we are fighting battles that have already been won. That we are always talking about women and what about the men. And how we shouldn't shout about racism and sexism and misogyny. We are told that we should watch our tone because we will alienate our allies--that we should be happy that we are being published now and that at least there are more than one or two people of color in genre today. Why are we still discontent?
And sometimes, I wonder what would happen if I were less passionate and less caring that cultures are appropriated and misrepresented. What would happen if I simply said: Okay. I'll stop caring. I'll stop struggling. I'll just close my eyes and pretend these problematic things do not exist. Does anyone really care? Does genre really care? Why should I care?
Leny M. Strobel, in writing about her own struggle as a writer of color, says:
So I write about the future. In the future world where white privilege, class, gender, religion, language, or country of origin, whether postcolonial or not, no longer matter. But my pen can't go on. How do I revel in that future now? Do you want me to give up my battles now and just let things be?
There is this social contract that exists between me and the community I came from. Even if my community is not visible or tangible or present in the physical space, I know it is there and it is to this community that I answer.
I cannot stop. I cannot go back to sleep. I cannot forget that when it comes to this I am first of all a Filipina. I am a writer of color and I cannot forget the legacy left behind by a woman whose work has inspired so many people of color like me. I cannot forget that I am one of Octavia Butler's Bloodchildren.
At times, I have felt the absence of a physical community very keenly. In places where fans and authors meet, I am made conscious of the absence of brown bodies. I feel that absence and am made even more strongly aware of the distance that exists between me and the majority.
While I feel this absence, I have learned to fill those absences with the presences of women who inspire and encourage me. Women who are socially aware, who are socially conscious and who are also fighting for visibility and for a space to tell their stories their way. And because I am also struggling, I want to give women a voice in the stories I have to tell.
I think of how, as a woman of color, I must learn to negotiate these spaces and how--as has been so very clearly spoken by other wiser women before me--as a woman of color, there are no safe places.
There is this thing we talk about which has to do with woman's work and how we as women writers in a field that is so dominated by straight white males have to stick together and stand up for each other and support each other's work.
And I agree. It is important for us as women to support woman's work, but how we understand support and how that support takes shape is still open for discussion.
(A.N. This is not to say that I don't appreciate or enjoy works written by men, because I do and I know many fine writers who are men, but as the header says, this is about woman's work and the woman of color at work.)