Friday, May 30, 2014

Politics in sf, or, which side am I on?

(Just posted to Facebook, and reposted here.)

Many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in the science fiction/fantasy trades, assuming that I will agree with them because I have known them for years, or because I admire their work, or because I seem in sync aesthetically, or (sometimes, I sense) simply because I am a white man with a Southern accent and gray in my beard, have expressed to me lately that sure, diversity and sensitivity are great, but what's gotten into all these youngsters and LGBTQ folks and people of color and -- especially -- women? Why do they keep picking on us? Why are they complaining so loudly? Whatever happened to civility? Why does everything have to be political, since we're all just storytellers, comrades around the fire? Why do they act like we've done something wrong, when in fact we have done nothing wrong? What's their beef, anyway? Aren't these "politically correct" people (the argument continues) the REAL bullies? And who are these people, anyway? We've never heard of them, so what right do they have ... ? 

And so forth. 

I've been hearing all this a lot. 

So, to save time, let me respond to all of these people -- the ones I know well and love, the ones I barely know and dislike, and everyone in between -- all at once. 

Simply put, here is my position on all this. 

First: The increasing diversity of our field is an unalloyed good. There is nothing at all wrong with it. 

Second: This ongoing discussion about the field and how it treats all its members -- a discussion instigated and driven by all these newcomers -- is likewise an unalloyed good. There is nothing at all wrong with it. It is the necessary growing pains of a field moving from awkward adolescence into maturity. 

And if you're still feeling bruised and resentful and don't understand where all this unrest, this agitation, this backlash is coming from, may I suggest that you re-read, as I just did, Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail. It was addressed to you, to me, to us.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The story of "Beluthahatchie"

I'm delighted that the May issue of Clarkesworld reprints my 1997 story "Beluthahatchie," alongside new stories by Maggie Clark, Matthew Kressel and E. Catherine Tobler, plus another Southern reprint -- Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters" (1987). I'm in great company.

To honor the occasion, here is the afterword I wrote for my out-of-print collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories (Golden Gryphon Press, 2000). Re-reading it makes me realize that in pairing "Beluthahatchie" and "Night of the Cooters," Gardner Dozois, Clarkesworld reprint editor, paired a Strother Martin/Dub Taylor story with a Slim Pickens story. Science fiction editors don't get to do this very often.

This story began in one of my graduate classes at North Carolina State University: Short Story Form & Theory, taught by Angela Davis-Gardner. Each student was required to do a presentation on the technique of one short-story writer. I don’t remember what writer I picked, but one of my classmates picked Zora Neale Hurston – whom I never had read – and specifically Hurston’s “Story in Harlem Slang,” accompanied by Hurston’s own glossary. That glossary, drawing upon African-American folklore much older than 1920s Harlem, included several vividly named suburbs of Hell, the most vivid, to my mind, being Beluthahatchie. My first thought was, “I’ve read a lot of stories set in Hell, but never one set in Beluthahatchie.”

Months passed, during which I toyed with various terrible ideas for a story set in Beluthahatchie and titled “Beluthahatchie.” At one point, I decided to write the story of a boundary dispute between the sleepy suburb of Beluthahatchie and the bustling city of Hell, and wasted time looking into the intricacies of annexation law before blessedly losing interest. My salvation, if I may use that word in this context, began when I started researching African-American folklore about Hell, figuring I needed to know a lot more than a list of place names. This research led me to the folktales of the slave John and his owner, Old Massa, who forever played cruel tricks on one another, united only in rascality and in mutual terror of the Devil. My research also led me to the Lake of the Dead, a myth apparently widespread in my homeland of central South Carolina that I, growing up white, had never heard. But most crucially, my research into African-American visions of Hell led me to the songs of the late Delta blues artist Robert Johnson – and once I realized my suburb-of-Hell story also needed to be a Robert Johnson story, all the story’s main elements clicked into place in my head. (I’m glad I didn’t know then, as I know now, that enough fantasy stories about Robert Johnson have been written in recent years to fill an anthology; I might well have abandoned the idea, assuming it had “been done.”  Advice to writers: It’s never been done, until you do it.)

I didn’t attempt to write the story down until several months later, during the first week of the six-week Clarion West writers’ workshop in Seattle in summer 1994. We were expected to write a story a week, and I had come prepared, with a suitcase full of notes. What made me turn to “Beluthahatchie” first was, I am ashamed to admit, spite. During the first day or two of the workshop, one of the manuscripts we discussed was a fine Devil story, set in the Louisiana bayou, by my classmate, Syne Mitchell. One of our classmates, I forget whom, announced that he/she was prejudiced against Devil stories, was in fact heartily sick of Devil stories, hoped indeed never to read another Devil story in her/his life. I thought, “Well, you’ll read ONE more, like it or not.” 

I went back to my dorm room and started the draft of “Beluthahatchie” that very afternoon, banging away on the typewriter I had borrowed upon arrival from Eileen Gunn. (My computer hadn’t arrived yet.) I found out later that my start-and-stop typing at all hours of day and night, loud enough to be heard up and down the dormitory corridor, drove many of my classmates nuts – though they were too polite, that first week, to say so. But Eileen had told me this was a Lucky Typewriter, on which she had written her first published stories, and so my hopes were high.

Flash forward to the following January, and the registration table at Chattacon ’95, a science-fiction convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Standing in line near me was one of my Clarion West teachers, Michael Swanwick, whom I greeted happily. “Hello,” Michael said, “and congratulations.”
“Congratulations on what?” I asked.

“Gardner is buying your story,” Michael said.

I had submitted “Beluthahatchie” to Gardner Dozois at Asimov’s months earlier, but had heard nothing. Sure enough, I came home from Chattanooga to find Gardner’s acceptance letter waiting for me. It was my first fiction sale. 

Three years later, the membership of the World Science Fiction Convention named “Beluthahatchie” a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of the year. And now it’s the title story of this, my first book. A lucky typewriter indeed, Eileen!

While I’m acknowledging people, I should note that of all the comments I received on the story at Clarion West, the most helpful were Syne Mitchell’s exhortations to work in as much of the applicable legendry and folklore as possible – to make the story, in short, Mythic with a capital M. “If you don’t take Syne’s advice,” Eric S. Nylund said at the time, “then you’re a fool.” Eric and Syne are married now; how could she resist? 

A final note: People ask me where my idea of the Devil came from. It mostly came from the late actors Dub Taylor and Strother Martin – check out Bonnie and Clyde and Cool Hand Luke, respectively. But when I read his lines aloud, I sound a lot like Strom Thurmond, whose South Carolina hometown is about a half-hour’s drive from mine. As my grandmother would say about a family likeness: I get it honest.
Cutting and pasting this, I just remembered one more relevant anecdote.

After the story first was published, many people stumbled badly when trying to pronounce the title. People introducing me at readings simply gave up and asked me to do it. Granted, no one from the Southeastern United States had any trouble, because Southerners are used to place names ending in hatchie, which means "river" in the regional Native American tongues. Still, a lot of people had trouble.

Nevertheless, when I told my editor-publisher at Golden Gryphon, Gary Turner, that I didn't know what to title the collection, his instant reply was, "We're going to title it Beluthahatchie and Other Stories."

"But Gary," I said, "no one can pronounce the title."

He retorted, "They pronounced it onto the Hugo ballot, didn't they?" And I had no answer to that. In fact, they soon pronounced it onto another ballot, as Beluthahatchie and Other Stories won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. A decade later, I titled my second collection The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories. Why tamper with success?