Today, I’m excited to be presenting “On Fucking Up and Being a Fuckup” by Heidi Belleau, an essay on the subject of writing outside your comfort zone, taking risks, and fucking up. This piece originally appeared on Heidi’s own blog, Heidi Below Zero. Heidi has graciously granted us permission to re-post.
So I posted my latest cover and blurb reveal on tumblr the other day.
The book was Wallflower, which comes out from Riptide in October and is the second in the Rear Entrance Video series, all about an unlikely group of roommates who wind up running a porn store. Wallflower is the story of a really shy geeky kid who has resolved to make friends and relate with people better, and comes to an unusual conclusion as to how he goes about it. (Spoilers, he dresses up as a cute girl.)
So anyway, I posted the cover and blurb on tumblr and it got reblogged and I got notes and one of the notes had a comment attached by the person reblogging that can be best summed up as “wary, but intrigued.” I won’t link the post because I’m not Anne Rice, but the gist of it was “X looks questionable, plot looks good, but it depends on how it’s executed.”
In other words, “Yeah it looks great in theory but there’s a lot of potential for her to fuck it up.”
And at first I was . . . dismayed! “I tried really hard on this book!” I cried. “I promise, I worked really hard to write a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of trans* issues and gender presentation and crossdressing and how they intersect and I’m queer and I promise I didn’t fuck it up!” I pleaded. “I had beta readers!” I finished, quite pathetically.
Um, not in reply to the post because that’s rude, but I yelled them at my screen because I’m really emotional after my near-death experience yesterday okay.
And then I stopped and thought about it and went . . . wait. Yes, this is the exact reaction I should hope to be getting from my books, and here’s why.
Because there is a big chance of me fucking up.
I mean, I’m white, I’m cis, I’m bisexual but I’m in a straight relationship, which comes with attendant privileges. And here I am writing a series that has followed a gay first-generation Canadian from Jamaica, an outspoken Inuit comic artist with white parents, and of course Rob, my gender-experimenting Chinese-Canadian.
Now, I’ve been writing POC since I got into this game. When Violetta Vane and I sat down to write The Druid Stone we pretty much simultaneously said to one another, we should do an interracial relationship. And then we did. And then we kept doing it. We liked it, it was interesting and fun and a challenge to write different voices and cultures, it was a drawing point for readers. . . Romance as a genre is still a pretty damn white place, and M/M slightly less so I’d say but still with the visible problem that a lot of the POC characters are less there as genuine representation versus for “spice” b/c ethnicity X,Y,Z is “sexy,” AKA adding a new flavour of fetishization to the M/M fetishization pie. (Not naming names, but there are a few books about Asian characters that particularly bother me on this front.)
So anyway, I’ve been writing M/M with interracial and multicultural elements for several books now, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m proud of what I’m doing, I find it fun and challenging and just RIGHT. I mean, on the point of Rear Entrance Video and why it’s so diverse: it’s not because I’m trying to recreate the glory days of 90s Captain Planet-style cartoon tokenism, it’s because Vancouver is a diverse, multicultural city and I wanted to represent that in these books. Think of it as an anti-Girls policy.
But all this time, I’ve been writing with a WOC co-writer who not only has the life experience of, y’know, growing up Asian-American, but has also dedicated a lot of her time and energy to educating herself about racial issues and racial politics and participating in activism that follows those learnings. In other words, she knows her shit. I do my best and I think I’m pretty keen for a (1) white girl, (2) a white girl from an overwhelmingly white upbringing, but let’s face it, I’m still a lowly worm in comparison to her.
Rear Entrance Video isn’t co-written though. It’s all mine. Sure, Violetta beta read the books for me because she’s my friend and a damn good beta and I need her. I mean, for sentence-level stuff and for bouncing plot ideas off of, not just the racial stuff. She pointed out places where I’d inadvertently written lines that were offensive, or pointed out double-meanings to things that I may not have been aware of. (For example, Rob refers to himself as “Asian, so I’m pretty small,” and Violetta was the one to point out the power of the “so” in that sentence and how it would read, and in light of that would I change it to “and” or leave it?) This is the kind of nuance that I’m just never going to grasp as a white person. I empathize and listen and ask questions when appropriate, but ultimately, an outsider’s knowledge is always going to be lesser.
So you know, on these books I did my best, just like I’ve always tried to do. But make no mistakes, these are the books of a white woman. In the case of the second book, the fact that I’m cis comes into play, as well. I’m writing as an outsider, and that means I will fuck up. Maybe my fuck up will get caught before the book goes to press, maybe it won’t. (So don’t blame Violetta; she’s amazing, but she’s not a magic racial-fuck-up-fairy-godmother and expecting her to be is not cool. I don’t expect her to be, and neither should you. My mistakes are mine. Always.)
And living by my own standards, doing your best (definition: writing good books about all sorts of different people that make readers fall in love and care and that make you feel good to write them) means acknowledging that yes, you will fuck up. You might fuck up in a small forgivable way, or you might fuck up in a big terrible way that is going to hurt people or make them angry and swear off you and your books. Every conversation about lack of representation gets the same response from a certain subset of authors though: “I’m white and I’d love to write POC but I know I’ll get something wrong and then people will be angry at me and I don’t want people to be angry at me” and sometimes it’s kind of sad and genuine like oh that’s so wrongheaded but I get why you’re nervous and sometimes it’s just racist like “oh minorities are so damn angry all the time they want me to write them but they want me to write them PROPERLY ugh just take what you can get or TAKE NOTHING” and white cis straight authors of the world who have ever said a variation of this to justify the lack of diversity in your books I WANT YOU TO THINK LONG AND HARD ON YOUR MOTIVATIONS RIGHT NOW.
So once on Dear Author we were having the conversation about “why no POC heroes/heroines in romance, authors?” and white authors were weighing in on the ole “fear of screwing up” chestnut and I realized . . . M/M authors say this very same thing to justify the whiteness of the genre. Meanwhile, gay men have been complaining since the advent of women writing dudes fucking/loving that they think M/M is fetishizing and othering and disrespectful etc. Which it most certainly can be. And yet . . . we write it. We write REAMS of it, whether it makes a certain subset of gay men angry at us or not. Whether they yell at us or not. Why? Because we like it. We like it enough that the fear of fucking up or of making someone angry doesn’t overcome our urge to write. If we’re callous we just don’t give a shit about gay men, and if we’re kind we try to incorporate and acknowledge those mens’ opinions and critiques and just do a good job while still writing what we like. So where goes that bravery when we have a chance to write another minority, be it racial or religious or political or otherwise? Where’s our stated love of diversity then?
So here’s a secret: I almost made Christian (of Apple Polisher) white. Without Violetta co-writing, I was genuinely concerned that I couldn’t write a POC character, and that I’d suck and it would piss people off and wouldn’t it just be easier for everybody . . .
And I could have “gotten away with it,” too. I mean, his race is inherent to his character as the book exists so no it’s not a “colour blind” story, but it has no bearing on the plot as I originally sketched it out, either. A student teacher being afraid to manage a porn store could be any race. And then I asked: well in that case, why not make him a POC? And the only answer I had for myself came down to fear. I was afraid of fucking up.
But in the end, I couldn’t be a coward with Christian, or Rob, or Dylan, or any of the other characters in REV who are many and strange and I love them all. I can’t criticize Star Trek and Girls out one side of my mouth and write safe white boys out the other… side. Of my mouth. Okay that metaphor didn’t work.
So here’s my statement:
I have tried my best not to fuck up. I am fucking terrified of fucking up. Of making people angry at me yes, but also of hurting people who don’t need to be hurt anymore. I have also accepted that I will fuck up at some point. Not may. Will. Maybe it’s something minor, maybe it’s something huge. Maybe it’s something harmless, maybe it’s . . . not. I really hope it’s never not harmless, I do. But when I am wrong about anything, big or small, feel however you feel about it, and react (pretty much) however you wish. Be angry, or be kind and nurturing of my tiny author flower petal feelings. Tell me what’s wrong and try to educate, or just blast me in a review and warn your friends away from me. You’re the reader and I have accepted that your reactions to my books are your own, you have a right to them, and you have a right to express them however you like wherever you like as long as you’re not poisoning my cats or threatening me/my family with bodily harm.
I have also accepted that if the choices are between:
(1) being a coward and maintaining the status quo
(2) trying really hard and still fucking up
Then I will choose fucking up.
At least you can learn from fuck ups. You can’t learn anything from not trying at all.