An Interesting Small Flaw In FLEX

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 4.824% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Your background helps drive your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  If you grew up in the Deep South, you’re probably going to have a good handle on describing the Appalachians.  If you grew up in lily-white Connecticut and never explored, you’ll probably have issues capturing a multicultural environment.
And my novel Flex has an interesting small failure, created by my own background.
Now, if you’re not familiar with Flex (and why would you be? It just came out yesterday! Get reading!), there’s three people who are the central family: our lead character Paul Tsabo, his ex-wife Imani, and their daughter Aliyah.
I’m getting some preliminary confusion as to what ethnicity Paul is.
Aliyah, his daughter, is clearly described as black: “His daughter appeared in her bedroom doorway, clad in her pink-and-green Kermit-hearts-Piggy nightgown. She clutched the prosthesis protectively against her chest. She had her best pouty face on, somehow adorable beneath her mop of tangled black curls – a messiness Imani would have combed flat, but Paul liked to see his daughter’s wildness made manifest. Against his daughter’s soft brown body, his artificial foot’s sharp carbon-and-titanium profile looked like a blade.”
That’s pretty clear.
Things gets wobblier when I describe his ex-wife Imani: “Imani, stylish as always, wore a long tan coat with seven onyx-black buttons. It looked both businesslike and regal, which suited her – an Egyptian princess’s stiff bearing.”  In this case, Imani’s probably black thanks to a Swahili name and an explicit call to her Egyptian heritage, but… I don’t explicitly reference that.  It’s a lazy inference.
So what’s Paul?
Paul’s ethnicity is not described.  (Well, there’s one brief referent about a third of the way in to “Paul’s hairy Greek skin,” but that far in you’ve already got your own image of Paul Tsabo, bureaucromancer.)
There’s plenty of description of Paul’s body – he’s an amputee, he’s scrawny – but I don’t really reference whether Paul’s black, or white, or what.  Which is a failure mode of me being a white guy, and buying into a culture where “white” is seen as the norm: I went “Well, most people have both legs, so I should mention that Paul is missing his right foot.”  I went, “Well, most ex-cops are pretty burly, I should mention that Paul’s kinda short and not muscular and had to work his ass off to pass the physical exams.”
And buried in a tangle of assumptions I should prooooobably unpack further was, “Well, most people are white…”
Now, that confusion only exists in the first place because I believe in multiculturalism, and as such I put a multiracial family at the heart of the book.  Honestly, if I’d just had a family of three white people, nobody would have been confused – and there’s a thought that fills me with discomfort.
Now, this flaw is subtle and doesn’t torpedo the book – mainly because the characters are written as people, with strong personalities, and race takes a back seat when the opening scene involves Aliyah stealing her father’s artificial foot because he’s fallen asleep on her again.  But it is something I’ve gotten some questioning on, and though Flex is a professionally-published novel that’s been getting some very strong reviews, that doesn’t exempt it from me going, “Hrm.  Coulda done that better.”
I’m a white guy who grew up with white guys.  I’m not used to explaining my own heritage; it’s kind of a trivia fact for me.  Hey, I’m Irish and German!  That means I drink a lot, ha ha!  Doesn’t affect my job chances at all, though, and the cops still love me.  But that means that when I write about race, even in the quasi-idealized racial world of Flex (and that’s a whole other essay in and of itself, on choosing to write a fantasy-ideal version of racial dynamics versus a more realistic version, and how that all boils down to the effect you’re striving to achieve in fiction), I often miss a beat.  I should have realized that Paul, too, needed his own identifier early on, because I’d established two black characters in a family and then left this nebulous gap when it came to Paul.
That causes some mild confusion, and regardless of how you feel about racial politics, “Confusion” is never anything you strive for as a writer.
That’s a weakness in my style injected straight from my background. I’m not going to flog myself over a detail like this – I’ll just put it in the large hopper of “Things Ferrett needs to improve upon,” and move on.  A lot of writers are all like, “I don’t wanna write about race.  What if I get it wrong?”  Well, here I am, botching it up a bit, and most people still seem to be enjoying my book.  The complaints, if you can even call them that, boil down to “So what’s with Paul…?”
So. In case it comes up, Paul is Greek, his ex-wife is black (actually a mixture of Egyptian and Swahili ancestry), and Aliyah is biracial but for all visual intents and purposes is black.  But if you read Paul as black?  I wouldn’t be offended.  And in the next book, I’ll do a little better at explicitly establishing ethnicity (and hopefully do it without anything as clumsy as “Paul examined his swarthy Greek skin in the mirror…”), and as such level up.
That’s all there is, man.

5 Comments

  1. Gayle
    Mar 4, 2015

    Y’know who else writes ethnicity a little lazily? Neil Gaiman. I always have to re-read to figure out if I’m picturing his characters in the wrong color. So I think you’re safe.
    Now hush, I’m reading a really good book … 😉

  2. CCR
    Mar 4, 2015

    I had this problem in the sequel and would have even if you’d made them all white. I resist and resent the idea that white is the default, and as a visual person, I want enough of a physical description to be able to picture the characters. I certainly need to know if they wear an eyepatch or the like!

  3. Rachel
    Mar 5, 2015

    I instantly defaulted to picturing Paul Giamatti….

  4. Jerry D'Antonio
    Mar 7, 2015

    Keeping in mind that I’m not a writer–professional or otherwise–but I didn’t consider this a flaw. Paul’s ethnicity (up to the point I’ve read thus far) is completely irrelevant to the story or to his character. So why draw attention to it? You clearly establish the aspects of the character which are needed for the story to work and that was enough for me. I have no idea whether Paul likes broccoli, prefers Brian Johnson to Bon Scott, or has ever read The Great Gatsby. And that doesn’t bother me because none of that is relevant to the story. When I was reading I did notice the two ethnicity references you made for Aliyah and Imani (quoted above) and I also noticed that you did not make Paul’s ethnicity as unambiguous. (I’m a visual person so I tend to note such things.) At the time I simply assumed this meant that Paul’s ethnicity was irrelevant and I continued to read on, unabated.
    PS: I’m really enjoying the story so far!

  5. Nathan
    Oct 27, 2015

    Race, for me, is such an important topic, it can decide what I watch, and sometimes what I read. When it comes to scifi however I am not too picky – the story is what drives me.
    Having said that, I just finished your book and I very much appreciated the slight ambiguity around Paul – though I did read him as black – Tsabo to me sounds Zulu or Xhosa.
    I must have totally missed the line that mentioned his daughters colour, and felt also that Imani was ambiguous. From the names however I suspected – and thought you were playing a rather clever game – allowing people to read the characters how they pleased – which should be done more often, in my opinion.
    It wasn’t until the end I read the explicit reference to Aliyah as black – and I smiled.
    Sometimes when I read some characters set in the future, traveling through space, and the entire crew is described like some Aryan nightmare I just roll my eyes – I wonder what kind of world these writers actually live in.
    So I enjoyed the little dance around race in this book – in fact I greatly appreciated it – there was definitely a sense of awareness – and as an avid scifi/fantasy reader its nice to be included. I generally gravitate to black writers specifically for this reason – but things needn’t be this way.
    There were a few dubious references (two by my count) that conflated the dark skin of some character, followed by a line about their wretchedness or wicked ways – that startled me a bit – the two descriptors came too close together – thus creating an association between their dark skin and whatever negative trait you were describing.
    I spend much time critically engaging texts in this way, so you could say that i’m sensitive to these issues – but they are things people will accept as true or as just connections and move on, in my experience – and that can lead to unconscious issues.
    Anyway – great book – just purchased The Flux.

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