Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sad Stereotyping From a Beloved Author

Two posts in one day – I’m on a roll.

But this one couldn’t wait. I was really, really saddened last night when upon the blog of one of my favorite, most cherished chick lit (or any lit, really) writers ever were chapters from a novel-in-progress which edged a little too close for my comfort toward the negative Arab-man stereotype (the only way I’ve seen Arab women portrayed in literature is downtrodden and miserable, or saintly and sacrificing, or else forcing other women into submission because that’s all they’ve ever know… pretty one-dimensional stuff). I took this particularly hard because this is an author who’s inspired me very much with the way she’s called the American media on their racial stereotypes, and the way they’ve subverted meaningful debate by asking all the wrong, inflammatory, and stupid questions.

I won’t go too far with this, but there were some things about this Arab character that were somewhat anti-stereotypical in that at least he wasn’t a terrorist (which, I started worrying about when I saw he was being represented as filthy rich and sketchy). He was a well-educated though woefully ill-equipped-in-bed character who takes our beloved member-of-a-misrepresented-minority heroine to bed under dubious circumstances (which make us wonder for a second if she was drugged, or about-to-be drugged), bangs her rather unceremoniously, and then tells her that not only is he married, but to several women. It turns out our protagonist picked a polygamist, teeny-weeny penised Arab man - from a very fashionable Gulf country (as in accessible, modern, a staunch US ally, and a burgeoning tourist destination) – for her fling.

I thought we were done with the filthy-oil-rich-polygamist, (and Oh-so-80s) cliché. Replaced by the much more twenty-first century poverty-stricken-terrorist-wretch stereotype. This, from sub-par literature, I have no problem with. Everyone gets stereotyped against, from drug-dealing Latinos and thick-accented maids, to Noble Savage (or just plain savage) Native Americans. But this particular author had expended much energy on dispelling certain stereotypes in her body of work, so maybe that’s why I took the don’t-you-stereotype-me-but-I-can-do-it-all-I-want blow so much to heart.

Here’s the thing with Muslim polygamy, in case you were curious. It exists, so I wouldn’t hesitate to use it in one of my own novels, if I thought it served the plot, and – here’s the key point – if I presented it correctly. Otherwise it’s just perpetuating hateful these-people-are-wacko type stereotypes.

A note on explaining things: explaining is not excusing, or even forgiving. It’s just making an effort to get where something comes from, put it in context. The desert was a very polygamous place when Mohammed showed up, circa 600 AD. Mohammed himself took several wives in the name of forming alliances after his first wife – to whom he remained faithful – died. These were also times of much war and little charity. Widows and orphans were left to fend for themselves, as at that time, women, whether in the Middle East or Europe, had about as many rights as domestic animals did. Maybe less. Mohammed would have known all about that, being an orphan himself. So when he gained following and power, he put a cap on the number of wives a man could take (4), and gave those wives several key rights that it would take European women many, many, many hundreds more years to catch up to, namely: divorce, inheritance, property, dowry (payable TO the bride’s family as collateral in case of divorce – an alimony of sorts – not BY them).

Fast forward 1,400 years. One of the major tenants of Islam is that the Qur’an is the literal, written word of God (disclaimer: I believe ALL organized religions are bullshit. I’m just reporting on this as a socio-anthropological phenomenon). There is no room for doubt in Islam (unlike the Bible which is said to be the “inspired” word of God – we know there are several versions of the Bible, several interpretations, hence all the different denominations of Christianity. Not so with the Qur’an. The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam is political, not theological).

This makes it absolutely impossible for practicing Muslims to challenge their spiritual beliefs (which probably explains most of our problems right there). So no amendments or footnotes to the Qur’an to the effect of: “You know what, we thought about this four wives thing and it’s just way too fifth century…” It may as well have been written in stone.

With the advent of secularism in the Muslim world, what many Muslim countries have done in the past century is simply outlaw polygamy (e.g. Lebanon, Tunisia, among others). But, as you very well know, the custom is alive and well in countries that practice the Sharia’h (or Qur’anic) law verbatim (notably Saudi Arabia, the US’s most important ally in the Middle East). Nonetheless, polygamy, wherever it is practiced, is mainly limited to:

A) The insanely rich, like royalty and nobility – they tend to be very traditional, and can afford to dole out four identical Manolo Blahniks at a time;
B) The insanely poor, as nothing multiplied or divided by four is still nothing
C) The very old fashioned country folk who are still working the land (where have 4 times as many sons to tend the land, and 4 times more likelihood a couple will pull through infant mortality, is a plus)

The only instances of polygamy you will see amongst educated, modern, middle-class people are where a sleazy guy is “cheating” on his wife by taking a wife #2, equated in Arabic pop culture to taking a mistress. Neither wife would know the other exists, and should they find out, they’d treat the guy as though he’d cheated. No difference. Most of Arabic soap opera drama is based on this type of conflict, whereas you’d never see outright cheating on TV – that’s just a little too indecent for our religion-seeped souls.

My grandfather was, strictly-speaking, a polygamist but I didn’t know it until I was in my late teens. I just thought he was a confirmed bachelor after two failed attempts at marriage. His family chose my grandmother for him (illiterate 13 year-old Syrian woman from the countryside) when he was young himself. He wasn’t really interested in her seeing as he was educated and rapidly rising up the ranks as a businessman in booming Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if he had already separated from her when he met the woman who’d become his second wife, but for all intents and purposes, he separated from my grandmother, and was then with this other woman (whom he also separated from before I was born – hence why I thought he was unmarried). It never occurred to me that my grandparents never divorced, but I’m pretty sure that my poor, illiterate country-bumpkin grandmother would have infinitely preferred this fate over that of being a divorcee.

So there you have it – it is possible, I suppose, to pick up a thrice-married Arab man in a seedy tourist bar, as this author portrayed in her draft. But if he were royalty (scenario A), he’s more likely to be gallivanting around a casino in Monaco. Men from scenarios B and C are as likely to be found in said bar as the Earth is to be hit by a meteorite in the next three seconds. Oil-rich Emirs don’t grow on trees, despite what the Harlequins of yore told us. There are some 11,000-odd Saudi Princes and Princesses out there who squander their country’s natural resources at the expense of their citizens’ educations, infrastructure, and future. They deserve all the bad press they get. But what about the other 299,989,000 Arabs out there for whom polygamy is nothing more than a shadow of a long-gone past? If a liberal, anti-discrimination, deeply intelligent, outspoken media critic won’t attempt a nuanced picture of Arabs then I’m at my wits’ end.

I’m all for entertainment, and you can pick your bad guys out of any ethnicity you want. But it’s transcending stereotype through effective characterization that elevates your work to greatness. I thought this writer’s first few novels were the stuff of greatness, and I really hope that this ‘draft’ is just that – a raw draft – and that somehow the rest of the story makes up for this overplayed cliché.

New Voices in YA Chick Lit

I attempted to set up my first booksigning this weekend. I’m not sure about this, but I may be planning a little too far ahead. I may have to start culling some of my sisters in writings’ expertise… it’s a bit a maze sometimes, all this promotion stuff. But the lovely thing about living in Cayman is that there are basically two bookstores, the owners of one, The Book Nook, are some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. One day, shortly after I sold, I ordered Publicize Your Book by Jacqueline Deval from them. It being a family-run sort of place (like many businesses here), Barbara, half of the dynamo team that runs the shop, pulled the book from behind the counter when it arriveda week later and looked up at me, impressed. “You wrote a book?!”

It’s been love ever since. Every time I’m in the store, every single customer in there with me gets an introduction and, ever since I gave Barbara an ARC, a sales pitch as well though the book isn’t even out yet. They’ve suffered the long-drawn agony of waiting for Fashionably Late to hit the shelves along with me since they knew about the sale even before some of my relatives did. They still can’t believe it takes that long to publish a book (and they’re in the business!) but their enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed one bit. So naturally, The Book Nook on Grand Cayman Island is where I’ll be holding my first signing in June. Yay me!

Okay, now for some major news… one that I have already hinted about just after Christmas… two of my best writing friends EVER, two of the kindest, most supportive, considerate girls I’ve met on this journey… got the call!!!!! THE call.

Wendy Toliver is the proud author of The Secret Life of a Teenage Siren (working title), a book about a band geek who turns into a Siren on her sixteenth birthday. It’s slated for publication by Simon Pulse in their romantic comedy line in fall of 2007. If you liked Venus Envy, you’ll love this YA take on mythology meets incredulous, reluctant heroines. Shannon’s Venus is alive and well in Roxy’s insanely beautiful (or just plain insane, depending on your point of view…) Grandma Perkins, who’s more of a Daryl Hannah in Splash! than Angela Lansbury. And Roxy herself is a younger, scarred by the Proud Crowd rather than embezzling ex-boyfriends, Rachel.

And as if that weren’t sweet enough, How To Salsa in a Sari by the lovely Dona Sarkar has been bought by Harlequin for their YA line (ask her where she got that snazzy title, he he)Dona has written lots before, like the wonderful Desi Divas – don't you love that title? – about three Indian-American girls and one wannabe Indian American girl juggling life, love, career, and crazy parents in Seattle… maybe now that Grey’s Anatomy put Seattle on the romantic drama/comedy map, we’ll see a demand for books based in Seattle? Who knows how this mysterious “demand” thing works? As far as I know, How To Salsa in a Sari is a Latino West meets Indian East tale where two families from these different backgrounds come together, forcing two very different girls to become stepsisters. Are you surprised it sold? I’m not.

What I find fascinating is that these two authors both started out as chick lit writers, weathered the ‘chick lit is SO not selling’ storm, and have now sold in YA. And they’re not alone… Just off the top of my head I can think of Alisa VR with her Haters, Beth Kendrick’ Life as a Poser who have branched out to Young Adult. And then there are authors I know who have gone the complete other way towards very sexy chick lit (not that anyone’s calling it chick lit, mind you).

Have any of these authors changed their tone? The feistyness of their leading chicas? Their label or pop-culture-references-dropping?


In fact, I’m willing to bet you these are the stylistic elements that made them rise above the pack and sell today. Because writing the gut wrenching, emotional, lay-it-on-the-line-and-make-me-FEEL-it style is tough, people. It’s what makes chick lit closer to mainstream than romance (like say, an Emily Giffin or Jennifer Weiner novel).

So perhaps it’s not authors and their so-called ‘formulaic writing’ that killed the chick lit phenomenon…but the publishers themselves? Maybe they just had one too many pastel pink stiletto-plastered covers designed for their (and our) own good.

The cover of Fashionably Late was almost one of those cartooney ones (which I liked very much actually, because let me tell something… that girl shown may have been a cartoon, but she was Arabic, the way you might see an Arab at the mall without really knowing that’s who she is, just knowing she has a not-from-here-maybe-Greek-maybe-Italian-maybe-Latina-but-not-really air about her, and it felt mighty good to represent and be represented. Positively. For once.). The cover Tor/Forge eventually went with was pretty much the polar opposite of this, and though I was confused by it at first, I’m absolutely thrilled with it now. Because no one will be able to “box” my writing because of it. Some readers might recognize the chick lit elements in it and pronounce it Chick Lit. Others will see the grappling-with-immigration struggle and see it as mainstream. Still others might appreciate it as an off-the-beaten-track travelogue, or an unconventional romance. It’s all of these things, which is why we should resist putting things in tightly confined boxes when they should free to become whatever the reader’s imagination wants them to become. Chick lit is in the eye of the beholder. And it’s certainly not dead.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Grey's Anatomy and The Problem with Men

I realize it may be a little late to post about this seeing as I saw the original blog entry several weeks ago, but I was busy and then I forgot. Perhaps I was unconsciously saving my rant for a light news week, or delaying having to post up my doomed New Year’s resolutions for the world to see. Whatever.

The blog entry in question was composed by a seemingly bitter young man who, like anyone who wants to avoid difficult answers, set up a poll on huffingtonpost.com asking females at large this: if you had to choose between George and Alex, who would you pick?

The George referred to in this case is, of course, the affable, cuddly and hopelessly relationship-challenged George of Grey’s Anatomy, and Alex, the womanizing cad of the same show.


So women’s choices boil down to this: a sexy but cheating jerk, or a clueless nice guy. Huh.

What happened to the guys on the show who are actually getting some? Like say, Burke and Shepard?

I suppose the blogger may have purposely limited the choice as a means of trying to get down to the ‘essence’ of women’s nature, like, what are our true, deepest, core desires? To be loved as we are, or to be satisfied in bed? If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say that poor guy had just gotten dumped and decided to vent his disdain for womankind on the blogosphere.

I wonder if what the poor blogger meant to say was that we women are never happy because we aspire to snagging guys like Shepard and Burke while overlooking the puppy-eyed, tongue-tied, lost little boy panting at our feet (I’m assuming the author identifies with George since he explained at length that only a hedonistic, emotionally-challenged woman would go for Alex).

Grow up, whatever your name is. Women don’t want little boys (like George. I’m not buying the whole Callie storyline, btw.) Or frat boys (like Alex). Women want men. Like Burke and Shepard. Confident sans the machismo, in-control without being domineering, and tender when it counts. And being good in the sack never hurt either.

Good luck, my friend.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New Year Resolution - Part 1

This New Year’s day I was invited to a brunch where I didn’t know too many people (Champagne brunching followed by some passing out drunk on the beach is quite the holiday tradition ‘round these parts, especially for us ‘Holiday orphans’, that is, expats who can’t go home and have to contend with each others’ company on the island for the festive season).

Anyway, I had absolutely no intention of opening my mouth and causing a stir (as opening my mouth inevitable does). I just wanted to talk weather and enjoy my mimosas in peace and goodwill. Alas, the Universe had other plans.

I’d just finished reading The Wal-Mart Effect (as you faithful blog readers know), and, with the most innocent of intentions, I started telling my (one) acquaintance at the table about it since we like to talk non-fiction books. My friend is a successful business entrepreneur, quasi venture capitalist, and free market theory is God to him, so he had an opinion on the book I’d just read. As part of some good-natured brunch banter, I opined back, and then a few other people joined in, and before I knew it, Middle East politics were dragged into the fray and “just out of curiosity, where are you from?” popped up.


There were two running jokes at the table, the first, that I consciously tried to hold my tongue under the pretext that my new year’s resolution is to stop shouting politics/economics at people during civilized gatherings (but it was hard to quell the steam rising out of my ears), and two, I kept referring to this one guy arguing with me ‘sir’ which someone else at the table finally called me out on: that my ‘sir’ was disguising some seething contempt. Humph. In my defense, A) I’d never met the guy before in my life, and B) He looked like he had children my age (okay, okay, small children. I still have to remind myself I’m not fifteen anymore). I thought ‘sir’ was appropriate (and maybe just a teeny little bit contemptful… whatever).

Anyway, the point to all this is that it was brought up in this discussion, as with most others I’ve had, that people feel like I know a whole lot more (and am biased, but that’s a whole other post) on some topics that they do, some even admit that you can never know a whole lot just by watching CNN or Fox News, and that molding miscellaneous factoids into an argument that makes sense is either a talent or a product of the mystical “knowing a whole lot”.

It’s really not all that complicated. Maybe I am n fact biased here, because I am, first and foremost, a reader. I think to read is to be curious about life, people, everything around you. And whether you like it or not, you’ll learn something. True, knowledge without wisdom can be dangerous, but lots of reading = lots of knowledge + time = some wisdom, a little bit at a time.

There are no absolute answers in life, people (as in, Is Wal-Mart evil?) but there are connectors in our brains, and the more we read (it’s hard for TV to do this unless you are watching a documentary, because TV tends to give you sound bites without the necessary context), the more we can connect the dots, and eventually (hopefully) form better, more well-rounded arguments.

Case in point: remember in my last post when I mentioned reading Ines of My Soul, and The Wal-Mart Effect? Two completely and totally unrelated books. And yet, while one covers (briefly) the enslavement (mainly to work in gold and silver mines) of the native peoples of Chile, The Wal-Mart Effect explains, using as an example the impoverished of Chile, how Wal-Mart makes everything cheap. And I was able to use all that in my argument. I wish all the things I learned at school were as easy to remember (and understand!) as all the knowledge I get from books.

So let’s all resolve to read lots more in 2007!

Epilogue: ‘Sir’ and I walked away from the brunch table friends.