As mainstream culture becomes increasingly vocal about the politics of gender, it makes me aware of all of the damaging narrative that I’ve internalized and which has created internal biases in myself. Those show up in my fiction. So when I sit down to write, I now assume that I have a bias.
Why is this a problem?
Because we are made of narrative. As humans, we respond to narrative in ways that we don’t respond to facts. Cory Doctorow talks about storytelling as a survival trait, and suggests that being able to empathize with a character is a survival trait. It makes sense, because if you don’t have this trait and someone tells you, ‘I went over there on that cliff and the ground gave way and I almost died!’—if you don’t internalize that in some way, you’re going to go over to the cliff, step on the unstable ground…and DIE. Being able to internalize narrative is part of what makes us human and keeps us moving forward and growing.
But we can also internalize narrative that is damaging.
So one of the responsibilities I have is knowing that people are going to internalize what I write. I have a responsibility to be aware of and cautious about passing my own biases on. That’s something I thought about very consciously for the Lady Astronaut books.
This is an alt-history starting in 1952, in which an asteroid strikes Washington, DC. I wanted to highlight the women who worked in the early space program. Let me explain how deeply these biases are woven in from narrative and how narrative can counter them.
I wrote this before Hidden Figures came out. This is an important detail. In The Calculating Stars, I have a character Helen Liu, modeled on a real life woman working at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1940. My beta-readers had difficulty believing that a Chinese woman would be there. They had difficulty with the black women that I had working in the computer department, even though I was basing them on real women.
After Hidden Figures came out, that reaction went away. Nothing about my writing had changed, but the narrative that people had internalized had shifted.
I had internalized it as well, honestly, but because of the larger conversation, I knew that bias was there. I assumed that women were involved in the program and had been left out. My other assumption is that people of color had been involved in the space program and been erased from the narrative.
Because the thing about gender is that you can’t look at it without the intersection of race. And when you start realizing how thoroughly and heavily women were involved in the space program, and how active people of color were involved, and how they’re just…left out. Erased. My view of the space program was flat wrong because of the media I had consumed.
If I don’t examine and look for my biases, then I’m likely to compound the problem with the stories I tell. I’d rather not, thanks. I’d rather read and internalize stories that center the people who have so often been erased.
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