Monday, May 12, 2014

Sturgeonblogging: Vylar Kaftan's "The Weight of the Sunrise"

On the off-chance that you've come here via that one white-straight-cis-male supremacist whose unhinged, novel-length screed links to this post, pretending that it supports his points: I would like to state for the record that I repudiate both his misuse of my work and his view of the world, which is as deeply ignorant as it is repellent. His total misrepresentation of the points I raise in this post can only arise from willful — and unethical — distortion, unfathomable stupidity, or both. (I suspect at least the former, considering his careful cherry-picking of individual sentences and stringing them together as though they were consecutive, which is not the case, not to mention that I guess he skipped over the part where I say that the post came out of what I've learned from, among others, black women revolutionaries and communists.) This post is among other things a critique of whiteness, albeit necessarily from within and therefore inevitably compromised. And for anyone who may have forgotten, I would like to remind them that criticism of liberals and liberalism can in fact come from directions other than the right.

[Considering the subject of this essay, I think it is important to place these pieces of information: I am a white American man. To the best of my knowledge, Vylar Kaftan is a white American woman (if she's not white, my problems with the story as it is written and as it seems to me to engage with whiteness remain, though I acknowledge that her right to state an opinion on most of these issues would trump mine). My take on the issues at stake here is in part my attempt to reflect what I have learned from the works of radical thinkers, activists, and revolutionaries of color such as Angela Y. Davis, Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, Paula Gunn Allen, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and many more whose accounts of their knowledge and experience I have been able to get a glimpse of through twitter and other online forums, most particularly Lauren Chief Elk and @prisonculture (do follow through to their websites as well). I mention these names (which should not be considered a comprehensive list) not in an attempt to give myself authority, of which I have none, but so as not to claim that I generated the knowledges that have informed my opinions here myself. If and where I am right, it is because of them; if and where I am wrong, it is because of me.]

With its very first sentence "The Weight of the Sunrise" (PDF link) establishes itself as a tale told by a grandfather to his grandson, a piece of family history passed down orally to explain to the grandson who he is and where he came from as he reaches the age of manhood. But though there are some desultory returns to this framing scattered throughout, the fact is that the story simply does not commit to its chosen form; reading, one gets no sense that Kaftan is even aware of what such a commitment would require. Stories told out loud, passed down from one generation to another, are radically different in purpose and in form from stories written down in solitude and published impersonally in wide-circulation magazines. When one of the latter pretends to be the former, it needs to keep awareness of this difference, either by making the pretense plain — making it the substance of the story itself — or by truly behaving as an oral story, embracing fully the strangeness of the conversion of spoken words into the silent words on the page. Kaftan does neither. Instead, she gives us a totally ordinary written narrative, moving along inexorably from its start to its finish, engaging in all of the behavior characteristic of the American short story form as it has ossified since the middle decades of the 20th century. I could quote passages at you to show you what I mean, but it would be pointless and arbitrary. Take any passage from the story, any at all, except perhaps (perhaps) for those few sections in which the narrator is speaking explicitly to his grandson, and imagine them read out loud. Where are you, who are you? You can only be in the audience at a reading, listening to and appreciating (or not) the work of an artist for its aesthetic merits; you cannot be a member of a community, hearing another member turn his own experience into the life and truth of that community.

This formal failure is just one facet of a much larger problem. Throughout, though she gestures at it from time to time, Kaftan shows very little awareness that different places, times, and peoples carry with them different ways of looking at, knowing, and talking about the world and the things and events in it. And this is a major problem, because although the story she has written is set two hundred years ago, in an alternate world in which the Inca empire survived both smallpox and the Spanish, and is narrated by an Inca man, its worldview is not noticeably different from that of the typical contemporary Western white liberal.

The story deals with the arrival in the empire of an American diplomat, Loddington. He is a planter and revolutionary from Virginia, seeking the independence of the colonies from the British for much the same reason that the wealthy colonial landowners did in our own world's American Revolution, though a few decades later here. He has come to the Inca empire — which was able to survive smallpox by slowing its spread through the use of quarantine, developed by its own scientists, but has been unable to stop the disease — hoping to sell them a newly-developed vaccine in exchange for enough gold to fund the revolution. The Incas, to whom gold is not currency but a sacred substance, are reluctant to pay, but given the necessity of stopping smallpox are nevertheless considering, as the narrator puts it, "selling our gods for the people's health." The narrator, Lanchi, had been an ordinary peasant farmer, but because members of his family contracted and survived smallpox they have been elevated to a sort of honorary noble status, which has become the tradition in the centuries since the arrival of the disease with the Europeans. He becomes involved with Loddington and the events his arrival sets off because, given his elevation and his vague familiarity with English (his grandfather was an English trader who assimilated into Inca society), he is the only man of suitably high rank who can serve as a translator between Loddington and the Inca royalty.

Lanchi is at every turn indistinguishable from that aforementioned typical liberal. He is a Family Man, living with and taking care of his contemporary-American-structured nuclear family.* As with every modern pater familias living out the intersection of patriarchy and ideological capitalist individualism (despite the story giving us no reason to think that his society possesses the latter, and plenty of reason to believe it shouldn't), he behaves as if his family were nothing more or less than an extension of himself, and as such he is far more concerned with their individual well-being than with the near collapse of his people's entire social, political, and religious structure and way of life that occurs within the story, which elicits hardly more than a "meh" from him. At the same time, he displays the good liberal behavior of fretting about the suffering only of those whose suffering is shown to him for political purposes, and desiring the freedom only of those his people's enemies have enslaved.** The story's inability to imagine what anyone significantly different would actually be like extends so far as to include a scene of Lanchi — who grew up both a farmer, working the land, and a member of a sacramental society in which animal sacrifice is commonplace — exhibiting a prim distaste at the sight of animal slaughter, much as contemporary cosmopolitans prefer that the animals we eat be killed elsewhere.

*The story treats this as typical. I will confess that I am no expert on Inca family structures, but I think it is safe to say that they were not this similar in both their material and emotional bonds to those that arose in response to the specific pressures of post-WWII American capitalism. (At roughly the same time and for many of the same reasons as the development of the particular short story form Kaftan is limited to, in fact.)
**That is to say, good instincts distorted for ideological purposes, pointing only in useful directions.

This inability of the story to inhabit its own milieu is perhaps most damning in one of its major subplots, in which in order to make up for the gods-displeasing loss of so much gold the Inca High Priest plans to sacrifice twelve hundred children — and because Lanchi has now come so much to the attention of the nobility, he is certain that his own daughter will be one of them. I do not mean to suggest that it is inappropriate for him to be upset about this, but the way in which he is upset about it rings utterly false. Or rather, perhaps, it is the way that Kaftan makes use of his feelings in the face of this possibility that bothers me. For one thing, it is clearly a stakes-raising device, Kaftan trying to use her contemporary audience's presumed values to make them care more about what's going on. Worse, it is a way for her to distance Lanchi in the reader's eyes from his culture's sacrificial tradition — without which distancing he could not easily be "likeable" to readers from a culture that rejects human sacrifice (or more accurately, prefers its human sacrifice, like its animal slaughter, to be performed elsewhere). Even at a point when the proposed deal with Loddington has led to a rupture between the High Priest and the Sapa Inca (the religious and political leaders, respectively, both considered gods), a rupture that has become public as the High Priest performs a ceremony to determine "whether the bargain offered is satisfactory" — that is, even at a point where the stakes are so high as, basically, civil war on earth and in heaven, Lanchi is unimpressed:

       "I hope the omens are good," I said.
       "So do we all," he said. "Some are troubled, including myself. It is unwise that the High Priest should openily question the Sapa Inca's will. It's one thing to speak from his chair sometimes, but another entirely to consult the gods about another god's decision." ...
       I decided he must be nervous, and perhaps even looking to someone as unimportant as myself for guidance. ... I said, "Maybe the gods will confirm the Sapa Inca's decision."
       "I hope so," he said distractedly, and left for another room. Meanwhile, I hoped with all my heart that the entrails would say otherwise, that I might not worry about my daughter's fate, entangled with the fates of other children in the Four Quarters.
This is astonishing, but again Kaftan seems to think nothing of it. Mixed feelings I could understand; a conflict between public and private obligations, an inability to decide between them, sure. But for Lanchi to "hope with all his heart," to actively desire that the entire material and spiritual foundation of his society be torn apart in order that he not have to "worry" about his daughter is nothing less than the projection of modern, rationalized, non-sacramental, individualistic subjectivity onto someone who should possess an entirely different kind of subjectivity. It is nothing less than intellectual imperialism.

It is not only that contemporary liberal values are imposed on Lanchi; it is that they are imposed on everything. The story implicitly believes in capital-p Progress: that it is axiomatically A Good Thing, that it is inevitable, and that there is only one direction — namely, towards those same contemporary liberal values — in which it can move. This can perhaps best be seen in the fact that, in the story, the Incas survive — and immediately start reforming away from everything that the liberal of today wouldn't like about them. Sacrifice has been abolished by the time Lanchi tells his tale, and Lanchi himself has ushered in an age of universal (implied, standardized) education. I'm not saying that these and other similar changes are or are not plausible, are or are not desirable — only that Kaftan clearly assumes that they are both, and furthermore has no sense that these are enormous and fundamental transformations with incalculable ramifications on every element of Inca life. Instead, she treats them as though they were nothing more than, say, a minor change in campaign finance law to feel victorious about at the next Netroots conference.

Far, far worse, with all of this she all but says: the Incas needed to be overthrown, it's true, but wouldn't it have been nicer if they could have overthrown themselves through reform, in the name of tolerance and diversity, rather than having to be slaughtered?

All of this, I think, is wrapped up in a view of the world that treats the past in a way both teleological and instrumental: progress is unidirectional and inevitable (though always with embarrassing hiccups like genocide and slavery, which like all problems exist in order to be solved — because if there were no problems to be solved, how could there be progress?), and the purpose of the past is to lead to the better present. Past ways of being are to be respected and valued not on their own terms but only insofar as they were precursors to — sometimes "primitive" versions of — our current way of being. I doubt that, if asked, Kaftan would say that she felt this way, probably she neither means to nor thinks she does,* but I see no other worldview that could have produced a story such as this. And considering such a worldview, it is no surprise that the story treats everything — from history (real and imagined) to culture to its own sequence of events — as little more than resources to be made use of as it plods on to its conclusion. Nothing simply is; everything that happens does so in order that something else can happen. In one of its fictional aspects this instrumental worldview is often praised as "tight plotting." I'm not so sure it should be praised — certainly, at least, not when it's like this.

*And I hope it's clear that I'm not, like, imputing active deliberate evil to her or anything. Part of the reason I feel I recognize these dynamics is that I used to/still do participate in them myself.

Perhaps the most horrific example of this is when it is revealed that Loddington has been transporting the vaccine — which is nothing more than the pus from cowpox boils — in the bodies of very young slave children, chained to their beds, where they lie in agony, in their own filth. It is admittedly difficult to write about such a subject without either recoiling in horror or descending into maudlin performances of empty sorrow — but it is the responsibility of the writer confronting it to avoid both. Kaftan does, all right — but she does so by using the revelation primarily as negotiating leverage for Lanchi, and storytelling leverage for herself. This taken care of, the story moves on — gotta get to that conclusion!

Every once in a while, the story is able to break out of these limitations. There is a nice moment when Lanchi learns of the method of vaccination and is able immediately to incorporate it into Inca ways of knowing, rather than European. And at the climax of the story, the use of lying and theft to get the vaccine to the people who need it, rather than "honest" monetary exchange with Loddington, is treated as heroic — where what you'd expect from the typical liberal in response to such methods would be some variation on "I approve of your goals but I can't condone your actions," followed perhaps by some muttering about "the rule of law."

Both moments, and one or two others, are to Kaftan's credit, but it is too little, too late. And not only because of all of the specific issues I have discussed thus far, but because of the fundamental distastefulness of the story's concept. What it really boils down to is, "Wouldn't it be nice if that people we wiped out had survived long enough to (symbolically at least) free that other people we enslaved?" My first reaction was that this is downright obscene. In an email responding to my description of this aspect of the story, a friend suggested the more charitable interpretation that perhaps the story is suggesting that white people as a group are too much a lost cause to be trusted to solve the problems we created, that it would be best if we were just taken out of things altogether (a proposition it's hard to argue against). And it's true that the one real white character in the story is presented very negatively, while the major black character and several Inca characters are presented very positively. But the problem is — how are positive and negative being defined? Who is claiming the right to define them? To what end, to whose benefit?

The territory this story treads upon is so fraught that it seems to me that white people should just stay out of it, at least in the way this story deals with it.* With respect to racism, the responsibility of white writers is to explore our own experiences of whiteness, not to ventriloquize people of color. A white person should be telling this story, if at all, from Loddington's point of view — should be examining what, in her whiteness, she has in common with him, rather than distancing herself from him as an obvious villain. But this kind of examination is too dangerous for the liberal mind, whose self-definition is based upon a fundamental assumption of righteousness. On a more prosaic (but intimately related) level, telling the story from Loddington's point of view would have given less of an opportunity for the kind of feel-good conclusion the entire story points itself towards, the vaguely warm-and-fuzzy ending in which everything turns out for the best.

*Again, I am writing under the impression that Kaftan is white. As I said before, if she is not, the story as written still strikes me as problematic in all of these ways, but obviously some of this would not apply, and at any rate I do not make it my business to tell people of color how to talk about race.

It is frankly embarrassing that "The Weight of the Sunrise" has now been nominated for both the Nebula and the Sturgeon, two awards with pretentions towards seriousness — embarrassing, but not surprising. It is exactly the kind of self-congratulatory story whose flattery the white liberal ego easily confuses with greatness (I speak from some experience, alas), making one overlook its overwhelming clumsiness and dullness, and my sense is that the majority of the Nebula voters, and certainly of the Sturgeon jury, are precisely that kind of white liberal. It is embarrassing, but not surprising — and too it is perhaps appropriate that even now a story like this can be nominated for two serious science fiction awards: for its imperial instrumentalization of the "Other" and of times other than the present is a central, I almost want to say fundamental, aspect of science fiction — one that the field has long rewarded. I wish it would stop.


Erin Horakova said...

"With respect to racism, the responsibility of white writers is to explore our own experiences of whiteness, not to ventriloquize people of color."

This is v. interesting, but I don't quite know what sort of work this is a call to? The obviousness of his villainy/impossibility of telling the story from his POV thing you flag up just after--that's useful, but do you mean more than that/how do you prevent this impulse from being white people write about white people doing things to not white people and even if it's shown as awkward this time around all the focus is still on the white people, their agency, their stories?

Ethan Robinson said...

I think what I'm responding to here is not just this one story but a larger tendency in contemporary sf for white people to write the lives of POC (and men to do so with women, straight people with queers, etc etc), in the name of "diversity" and "representation" - both important goals in their way, but they need to be in the hands of the marginalized, not the privileged.

The question you ask is interesting and important, and I don't think there's a "solution" - except, and this is an editorial responsibility, to publish work from more different kinds of people. The problem is, whiteness is all-consuming - it's a problem when it focuses on itself, and it's a problem when it focuses outward.