24 March 2007

Politically Correct with Karen Mercury

I specialize in novels set in colonial Africa. This poses its own set of problems. How do you portray racism with any degree of historical integrity, and still remain accessible and inoffensive? To what degree are you willing to put yourself on a limb and create a character who isn’t in step with the mores of our "modern times"? (Heh, heh. I love having historical characters talk about their "modern times.") Of course there's always the bad guy, or the colorful red shirt guy, who can effectively display all the characteristics we now find so heinous. The filthy slob who refuses to bathe, for instance. It's never the hero. The hero never even has facial hair. What if we were to give our heroes some of these odious features (and I don't mean a moustache)? Hmm, I doubt the book would even sell in the first place.

The answer for me, so far, is...You don’t. I suppose that’s why I'm asking now. I've managed to skirt these inflammatory issues by simply not addressing them. I've barely mentioned slavery in my books, because I feel it's such a huge issue unto itself that even to make it the topic of one scene would detract from the action of the entire book. By now, pretty much everyone knows that slavery is bad, and non-slavery is good. I've studied slavery for 40 years, but it's just not something I'm willing to address in fiction.

In my first novel, set in 1897 in what is now Nigeria, an early scene displayed the dynamics between the hero and his best friend, both from Alabama:

Evin couldn't speak but the most base of the Edo language, just enough to order things in the market. Brendan was proud of his own facility with languages. "I reckon my graphophone records got hung up in Casablanca, too. I'm waiting on that Il Trovatore."
Evin said, "I'm waiting on those coon songs myself. Bill Newcomb over in Albertville's sending me Hogan's new sheet music. 'All Coons Look Alike to Me.'"
Brendan smirked. "That's a mighty ironic title to be teaching these Edo folk."
Brendan, of course, is the hero. With no facial hair.

I got a bit of shit for that from my first editor. She wrote squiggly red question marks all over it. I explained that one of the first wax cylinder recordings was Ernest Hogan singing this popular ditty, and it was part of the rich tradition of "coon songs" that preceded ragtime. (I believe there's only one group extant who continues this great tradition -- the McIntosh County Shouters -- and they still call it "coon shouting." If you try to order a CD, you call up and talk to the lead singer, and if you send a check, eventually she might send you a CD, if she likes you.) Anyway, my editor seemed to buy it, because it's intact in the final book.

Much as we all know that non-slavery is good, we also know that non-child-abuse is good, but when and in what manner is it appropriate to address it in our books?

For my third pirate book, the H/H are arguing, and unbeknownst to them, in the doorway lurks a young cabin boy (who I modeled on that adorable towheaded kid from Master and Commander).

"Are you sure, Tomaj? Slushy and that Zaleski fellow give me the creeps oftentimes. How is it that Boneaux entrusted him with this message? I just feel that perhaps you shouldn’t be so free with your information—"
"Are you poking Charlie at my mates?" piped Bellingham, who had evidently been standing in the open doorway. He gave a stiff bow to Tomaj, but continued braying, "Zaleski’s been my sea daddy since I came up through the hawse pipe! He’d go through the hoop for Cap'n Balásházy!"
Dagny held her hands out toward the boy. "Oh, dear Bellingham. Don't misunderstand me. I'm sure they're fine, upright men, perhaps when in your company and in the capacity of teachers, or—"
"Aye, they may frig about on a time, but they'd never be in league with a bilgey like Boneaux!"
"All right, Bellingham!" Tomaj felt compelled to shout, standing betwixt the boy and woman. "To your quarters on the double! I’ll not have you eavesdropping or insulting my guests. You may apologize to Miss Ravenhurst."
"Sorry, Mademoiselle. But you'd best clear the yardarm in this instance. Zaleski and Slushy—"
Whap! Bellingham's delicate etiolated face instantly went red when Tomaj slapped it. "That’s enough, Bellingham!" Tomaj screamed with enough force to blow the boy into the hallway with his voice. He shoved the scrambling youth out of the room, slamming the door behind Bellingham's flapping limbs.
Dagny stood with her hand to her open mouth. "Tomaj!"
"I’m sorry, malala. He can be an annoying little powder-monkey, for one who has been so elevated in position. Why, when I found him at Saint Helena, he was just a ragamuffin—"
"No! I mean, how dare you strike him? Did you know that that poor boy doesn't even know his given name? You don't care for him as a father should, Tomaj! It's no small wonder he looks up to Slushy and Zaleski, when the man who should be standing father to him all but ignores him, except to slap and reprimand him!"
Here I'm probably treading into even worse waters. Who is this hero, if he runs around striking poor defenseless cabin boys? I tried to give enough of the mood of the scene to show that, within context, Bellingham was actually out of line, because a few Chinese pirates were about to crash through Tomaj's window. And of course, at the time, cabin boys, and pirates in general, were constantly being walloped about the head.

Has there been something inapropos to modern times that you've refrained from mentioning in a novel? I know we'd all like to think we’re completely 100% accurate historically, but sometimes "modern times" stand in our way.