The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, June 05, 2006

What's Been Bothering Me

When the 'I am myself' goes, the 'I am all' comes. When the 'I am all' goes, 'I am' comes. When 'I am' goes, reality alone is...
-- Nisargadatta Maharaj

So.. Here’s the truth about what’s been troubling me.  Since the death of Octavia Butler, I’ve been taking another look at what I’ve accomplished in my own career.  I certainly never considered myself as fine a writer as my friend, or for that matter the wonderful Samuel Delaney.  But there I am, the third member of a triumvirate of black SF writers, and the only one left in the field.  Oh, Walter Mosley writes SF, but you’ll notice that most of his readers are…well, Walter’s readers.  Not SF readers. He is a stellar, bestselling writer who operates in several fields.  Not as much comfort to me as a home-grown writer would be.

You see, when I came into the SF field almost 30 years ago, I thought that other writers of color would enter the field after me.  They did…and they were all women.  In thirty years.   Not a single black male SF writer came in after me.  What the hell..?

And when Octavia died, I began to think more deeply (and perhaps gloomily) about what that means.  The short version is that there are environmental pressures in the field.  SF is modern mythology, mythology exists to place the mythologizers in the center of the universe, and SF basically salutes Northern European faces, languages, image systems, mythologies, world views, and so on.  As I’ve said many times, 99% of everything you see in the SF field is white people and their imaginary friends.  No one wants to take responsibility: they blame the editors, the art directors, the advertising departments…everyone except where the blame belongs: the nature of human perception, and the persistence of human fear.  That slight, 5% disconnect that makes it both more unlikely that a    males, black or white or Asian,  would pick up an SF book without someone who looks like themselves on the cover.  And a 5-10% shift in sales patterns is GIGANTIC when multiplied across generations and millions of readers.  It’s enough to create an apparently intractable problem.

Or so I tell myself.  It isn’t that black males don’t like SF.  It isn’t that they don’t  dream of writing careers.  It isn’t that they don’t go into the sciences.  Surely, it doesn’t take more raw ability to write SF than it does to be, lets say a   physician.  And the percentage of black physicians (about 3-6% depending on your data source) is way higher than the percentage of SF writers.  As is the percentage of blacks writing fiction in general.
Here’s the problem: it makes a great target for my Drunken Monkey.  It whispers to me that Octavia, better than me, couldn’t support herself in the SF field. That it wasn’t until the Women’s Literature movement, and Black women readers in particular discovered her that she started making money.  The suspicion remains that Chip Delaney found far greater acceptance and success in academic writing and Gay-themed work than he ever did—or could—in the SF field. 

And that brings me to my own ego-driven inner ravings. I started my career with certain goals, hopes and dreams.  Now, let’s make it clear—in any reasonable sense, I’ve surpassed them (career wise) that is, I’ve done everything that little boy inside me dreamed of.

But there is honestly, seriously, a part of me that thinks I’ve gone as far as I can in the SF field.  That there is just a limit to what I can do.  If there had been just one black guy who came in after me and succeeded.  Better still, if anyone had come in and blown me away, I’d have just said “well, Steve, maybe you’re not good enough, don’t work hard enough” to reach certain goals. But no one came in.  And in some very important ways, no non-Caucasian has ever done much better than me in this field.  And considering how much better there is to do, that’s a little scary.  In other words, I have no proof that it is even possible to do better than I have.  I’m proceeding on faith, and when Octavia died, that faith took a hit.  I realized that, to a disturbing degree, I was alone in the world.  And that was frightening.
So…what do I do?  If I’m right, I’m heading down a dead-end street on a runaway train, career-wise.  If I’m right, the closer I get to my truth as a writer, artist, and man…the more likely I am to be writing things that the market doesn’t want to read.  And that’s disturbing to me, frankly.  It impacts my ability to feed and protect my family.  It is terribly sad to that little boy inside me, who just wanted to be loved and heard.
I’ve been thinking about this, trying to disprove my thesis (and all it would have taken is one black male writer succeeding other than me) and when I’m tired, or in grief, or under pressure, it’s tough.  On a logical level, I can’t disprove it.  The thought that I can’t is comforting to the demons in my basement.  They whisper “stop trying.  Stop telling the truth.  No one wants to hear.”  The voices are traitors to whatever potential remains untapped within me.

There is no answer on the level of ego.  Everything I think about American culture, about human perception, about the origins of racial miscommunication, may well be true, and will be healed only by time.  Long after I’m dead, perhaps.  I can’t know.  And what do I do while I sift through the data?

There is no answer that my conscious, calculating mind has been able to find.  But that doesn’t mean that there is no answer. “When the 'I am myself' goes, the 'I am all' comes. When the 'I am all' goes, 'I am' comes. When 'I am' goes, reality alone is...”

My salvation is to go more deeply into the process.  Beyond race and gender, beyond life and death.  Better men than me have struggled their whole lives to “understand” the issues that have, perhaps, limited my success.  Perhaps.  I don’t have the time or the temperament to fight those battles again.

But if I set myself to dig directly into the source…perhaps.  If I remember that the smaller my ego, the tinier the spaces I can slip through.

If I use my pain and fear to motivate myself to find the truth within my existence to an extraordinary degree, then I will be able to reach out to those readers who crave a writer willing to extinguish the flame of his own ego in order to dig to the truth.  A rarified atmosphere.

But really, is this different than asking the question “what will it take to bring about racial harmony in America?  Or justice and peace in the world as a whole?”  If I cannot move beyond my wounds, have I the right to ask people to slip into Alpha-state and absorb my metaphors? 

Perhaps not.  So…this is just my particular cross to bear. We all have them.  For some reason I chose this one.  I just never thought that I would bear it alone, for so long. 
Last Friday in class, Tim Piering opened my eyes a bit.  I was able to see beyond my pity and selfish needs to a point of light.  I have to focus my mind on where I’m going, not on the obstacles I see.  There is no joy in Mudville if I concentrate on the obstacles.  On the other hand, if the social barriers I’ve perceived all my life are as strong as I suspect, it would be disastrous to be in denial about them.

There is a middle way.  A way of adhering to your goals and dreams and principles, while not being foolish about the possible dangers.  That way has been marked out by innumerable spiritual men and women: teachers, warriors, saints, philosophers.  I think that my only hope is to trust them, and trust my own heart, and to keep moving forward.
“I am” I think to myself as I lay down to sleep.  Over and over again, that central miracle of existence.  “I am.”  And when I awaken during the night, I think “I am.”  And when I awaken in the morning, “I am.”  Over and over again.  Not “I am black” or “I am not as successful as I’d like to be” or “I am 54 years old” or “I am alone in a field that does not want people like me…” or anything else.  Just “I am.”  The only thing that is self-evident, cannot be argued with in any meaningful way. The bedrock foundation on which all other knowledge of the universe must be constructed.

I am.  For another day, I am.

And today, that is enough.

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