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The Difference Between Racist Jokes and Inclusive Humor May 6, 2019

In March, thanks to a freak snow storm that buried Central Oregon for a solid week, I finished writing Lizzie Bennet's Diary. The project isn't fully finished because I'm in the process of distributing the paperback and eBook through Lulu. While the technical and business parts of me have loose ends to tie up, the creative part of me has already moved on.

My next project is a former project, in a way. I'm now rewriting a novel I first drafted about six years ago, Kagemusha. And by "rewrite," I don't mean I'm making minor tweaks to the existing novel. I mean I'm scrapping the whole dang thing. I'm taking the same basic premise and writing an entirely different book.

In July 2016, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Writing Without Fear."

Kagemusha has a fatal flaw: I was so determined to be lighthearted and funny that I shied away from any complex emotion. I left the characters and their relationships deliberately underdeveloped because I was afraid of making the story "too serious." I deleted whole chapter outlines and filled the gaps with time skips to avoid any sticky topics.

I first conceived of Kagemusha in my mid-twenties, before I was a fully formed adult. I was still living in my college apartment and struggling to launch my career in libraries. My life was like freshly mixed Jello, liquid and lumpy. Looking at it you'd worry, "Can this really gel into something solid?"

Now I'm in my early thirties, and my life has set up nicely. I have a stable full-time job and a house. I'm comfortable enough to afford costly hobbies like sewing, flute, and piano.

"Growing up" has had a complicated effect on how I write. On one hand, writing blog posts like this one is harder than it used to be. I'm more cautious about what I say. My students or coworkers might find this blog, so I filter myself to avoid saying anything too controversial or upsetting.

On the other hand, when it comes to writing fiction, I'm no longer afraid of sticky topics. In fact, I love writing melodrama. Bring on the tears! I need more conflict!

My mid-twenties attempt at Kagemusha was essentially a sitcom. It was highly episodic, with only a pinch of plot to glue the chapters together. The outline I have now is heftier, with a central theme of the tensions between individual identity, cultural identity, and public persona.

The project is also riskier. The hero of the story is now Iranian-American, and the heroine is Chinese-American. Their racial identities are core components of the new plot. The clash between Western and Eastern cultures fuels much of the drama and the humor.

Those of you blissfully insulated from social media likely read the paragraph above and thought, "Cool." Those of you who lurk in the Twitterverse might have sucked air through your teeth and thought, "Oh dear. Are you sure you want to do that?"

Progress vs. Hysteria

Every month or two I read about a new controversy in the publishing world over authors who write about cultures other than their own. In March, the controversy was about Kosoko Jackson's A Place for Wolves. The New York Times discussed the incident in the article, "Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture." Jackson, a gay black man who had previously worked as a sensitivity reader for publishers, wrote a novel set in Kosovo during the '90s civil war. One of the villains was an Albanian Muslim. According to the YA corner of Twitter, writing such a villain equated to "shitting on genocide victims." Jackson pulled the book from publication.

Then this week the NYT ran another piece titled, "She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish." The article details the Goodreads kerfuffle, subsequent cancellation, and later resurrection of Amelie Wen Zhao's Blood Heir. The YA novel is about a world where "a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite." Netizens who hadn't yet read the book deemed it insufficiently sensitive on the issue of slavery, because real oppressed peoples don't have magic powers.

Much genuine racism and sexism can be found in published novels. I see it all the time and also get upset about it, as you can see from my previous posts like "Faux Diversity in Fiction," Faux Strength in Female Characters," and "Sex Isn't a Story, Intelligence Isn't Cute, and Culture Isn't Character." But extreme cases like these, in which people whip themselves up in a frenzy over microscopic hints of insensitivity, raise the questions: Where is the line between progress and hysteria? What's the difference between a portrayal of an Albanian Muslim villain that merits moral outrage, and a harmless portrayal undeserving of the punitive reaction on social media?

I can say what the difference is not: intention. Most harmful stories and jokes aren't told out of malice, but out of carelessness. People are unaware of their biases and don't realize a joke can be terribly hurtful.

The difference is also not necessarily in how positive or negative the portrayal is. Yes, many xenophobic writers have crafted books and movie scripts starring blond, blue-eyed heroes fighting mustachioed villains with heavy German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern accents. So when we see a character of an oppressed group cast as a villain, it's easy to jump to the conclusion the author must be racist.

But it's possible to write a complex villain that happens to have a certain ethnic identity without throwing shade on his or her entire group. It's also possible (and common) to write a seemingly benign character that unintentionally reinforces stereotypes. Think of the funny gay sidekick in a rom-com whose one and only character trait is "flamboyant." Or the cool black best friend who starts every sentence with "Girrrl" and has no apparent life of her own.

Racism vs. Humor: Examples

In December of my freshman year of college, the girls in my dorm gathered in the common room to watch A Christmas Story. A clean kids' movie with heartwarming morals, right? Until you get to the scene in which the waiters at the Chinese restaurant sing, "Deck the harr with bough of horry! Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra!".

The girls around me cracked up at the scene. I wasn't offended, but I was puzzled. I couldn't understand what they all found so funny. A girl with curly blond hair explained to me, the only half-Chinese person in the room, "It's because Chinese people can't say the 'L' sound."

There are two reasons this scene is racist, not funny. First, the "humor" relies on painting Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, too different and dumb to ever fit in with us true Americans.

Second, Mandarin has the "L" sound! Bruce Lee? Lucy Liu? Do these names ring any berr?

The "L" sound is used at the beginnings of Chinese syllables, not at the ends. (See: Table of Initial-Final Combinations). So it can be difficult for Mandarin-speakers who learn English later in life to pronounce words like "hall" and "bell." But "holly" and "fa la la" are easy peasy.

Other Asian languages use an alveolar tap halfway between "L" and "R," like Korean; or they don't use the "L" sound at all, like Japanese. So the gag works...if you toss all East Asian people into one perpetual foreigner pot and assume they're the same. That's pretty much the definition of racism.

Now here's another video I saw in college with stereotypes of Asian people: "Shit Asian Moms Say." While I scratched my head at the restaurant scene in A Christmas Story, in my early twenties I found this off-color skit side-splittingly funny.

What's the difference? Both videos show ridiculous caricatures of Chinese people. So why would I find one offensive and the other humorous?

Racism divides. Humor unites.

You can see a pattern in the comments of the two YouTube videos. On A Christmas Story, the comments are generally along the lines of, "Best scene in the movie! Humorless millennial SJWs ruin everything!" People recognize that the scene is racist, yet they defiantly insist it's funny anyway. And if you don't agree, "Know some humor or get outta my country."

In contrast, the comments on "Shit Asian Moms Say" are from Asian viewers writing that a particular part of the video hit home. "Honestly this is my Korean/Japanese/Filipino mom ALL THE TIME!"

People from other cultures chime in and say, "This is just like my Mexican mom too, lol." Or, "Same as an Indian, but instead of East Asian languages it's all Hindi." The video isn't just for Asians; it resonates with people everywhere.

So one video divides people and encourages cruelty to "outsiders," while the other brings people from different backgrounds together to laugh about their shared experiences. One is factually incorrect, while the other prompts people to write, "I'm Chinese and this could not be more true!"

Racism generalizes and promotes lies. Humor is complex and truthful.

I wrote in 2014 that truth is the backbone of comedy. The restaurant scene lacks authenticity, while the viral YouTube video has it in spades.

Has anyone in the audience of A Christmas Story ever listened to a group of Asian carolers sing "Fa ra ra"? No, because it doesn't happen.

Has anyone in the audience of "Shit Asian Moms Say" ever been on the receiving end of an angry tirade that ended when the telephone rang, and Mom switched instantly to her dulcet public voice? Absolutely.

Racism alienates groups as "others." Humor embraces groups as "us."

A Christmas Story was made by a Hollywood studio in the early 1980s, based on a book by a humorist who grew up in Indiana in the 1920s and '30s. The scene frames the Asian waiters from a distance as one homogeneous group in Manchurian costumes. The audience is expected to identify not with them, but with the white family in the background gaping open-mouthed at these alien curiosities.

"Shit Asian Moms Say" was made by an Asian-American man and his friends in the early 2010s. His exaggerated portrayal of his Taiwanese mother is based on personal experience, and it comes out of love. The video portrays a complicated character who's comically strict and frank, but also nurturing, friendly, and affectionate. The audience is expected to identify with the Asian actor doing the impersonation and think, "Man, we had the same childhood!"

Professional comedians of all races mine their own lives for material. Gabriel Iglesius impersonates Mexican men and women running taco stands in his stand-up programs. Trevor Noah jokes about life in South Africa, where traffic lights are mere "suggestions." Hasan Minhaj shapes routines around his relationship with his immigrant Muslim Indian parents. Yoo Byung Jae ruminates on the absurd social niceties of life in South Korea, Mel Brooks makes movies featuring "Druish Princesses," and so on.

This list might give you the impression that only people from within a culture are qualified to joke or write about it. I believe everyone should be "allowed" to write about any group of people, but only those very familiar with a culture can do it well.

These comedians have been immersed in their cultures since birth, so they've had daily opportunities to notice the truths that can be spun into comic gold. If writers from other cultures want to do the same, they have to work very hard.

Writing Sensitively While Pushing Boundaries

I can't start my life over as an Iranian-American, but I can do everything in my power to immerse myself in the culture. I can read all the Persian books and blogs I can find, watch all the movies from filmmakers in Iran that I can get my hands on (which is sadly few, even for a librarian), and talk to people with first-hand experiences.

I can also make sure my characters are characters, not caricatures. Racist portrayals frame characters around their ethnic identities first and their personalities second (or not at all). Respectful portrayals imbue every character with complexity and realism, regardless of race.

My ultimate goal in rewriting Kagemusha is to create a novel that people of all races will recognize themselves in. I hope Persian and Chinese readers will be delighted to see themselves represented in print. It would be the ultimate compliment for someone to say, "This is so my life!"

"Complex" Does Not Equal "Unlikeable" April 21, 2019

A while ago someone asked in a writing forum I visit occasionally, "What would you like to see more of in romance novels?" In reply I repeated, in summary, what I wrote here last January: I want to see more complex female characters. I'm tired of the same old gorgeous, angelic virgins with mile-long legs and no flaws other than "adorkable" clumsiness and low self-esteem.

I didn't imagine this would be a controversial opinion. Every writer would prefer interesting characters over boring archetypes, right?

Apparently not.

The problem with complex female characters is that they're too risky. Readers won't care about them enough to keep reading about them.

A heroine has to be beautiful to make it believable that the hero would be interested in her.

She has to be nice and generous so readers will root for her, and not just be jealous of her.

She has to be clumsy or insecure or something to give her dimension, but not so much that she's unlikeable.

My first reaction to this reply was disbelief. I couldn't believe that a fellow writer in the twenty-first century would say, in perfect seriousness, that a woman must be physically attractive or no man could possibly love her, and she must be super duper nice or other women will be "jealous" of her, and her personality must be as bland as a plain piece of Wonderbread or she'll be "unlikeable." That's the sort of attitude parodied on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, not an attitude I was aware still existed in real life!

Once my brain reluctantly accepted the fact that the comment was real, I responded like this.

The assertion that a heroine must be a perfect model of lovely, inoffensive, childlike femininity to be "likeable" bothers me most of all, because nobody could make the same argument about male characters.

Mr. Rochester is the opposite of handsome. Does that mean it's unbelievable when Jane Eyre falls for him?

Sherlock Holmes is a Grade A Jerk without a generous bone in his body. Does that mean readers don't root for him?

Have you ever read a novel featuring a male protagonist whose biggest flaw is that he regularly trips over his own two feet and falls into the arms of beautiful women?

I can't dispute that protagonists must be likeable, or most people won't want to read about them. However, that Victorian definition of what makes a woman "likeable" is insulting. That commenter is basically arguing that likeable female characters are pretty dolls, not human beings.

Not only is the assertion insulting, it's factually incorrect. Readers love complex heroines, when they encounter them.

  • Betsy Taylor, heroine of the comedic Undead series by MaryJanice Davidson, is arrogant, flippant, and unapologetically superficial. The popular series has 14 titles to date.
  • Hermione Granger is a bossy know-it-all and a self-righteous tattle-tale. Her name regularly tops lists of "best female protagonists of all time" on the Internet.
  • Scarlet O'Hara is vain, spoiled, and manipulative. More than eighty years after the first publication of Gone with the Wind, the classic novel still enjoys strong sales today.

The list above contains only three bullet points because I couldn't come up with many more. When I think back on all of the stories I've read recently, not a single heroine makes the list.

In the last published novel I read, a contemporary romance that frankly should have been filed under pornography, the heroine was a buttoned-up workaholic in Silicon Valley who preferred math equations to her parents' country club parties. Though she believed she could never experience a romantic relationship because she wasn't "normal" like her confident cougar rivals, the escort she hired fell desperately in love with her luscious bottom and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

In the one before that, a historical mystery, the heroine was an old-fashioned small-town girl in the Big Apple who preferred books over dinner parties. Though she believed she could never get married because she wasn't pretty like the glamorous models in her dorm, the cute chef at the jazz club fell desperately in love with her alluring eyes and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

And in the Wattpad novel I finished before that, a contemporary teen drama, the heroine was a nerdy high-school senior who preferred studying over beach parties. Though she believed she could never get a boyfriend because she wasn't sexy like her scantily clad BFFs, the hot playboy next door fell desperately in love with her mile-long legs and innocent charm because she's "not like the other girls."

If I think far, far back, I can add Rachel from Girl on the Train, Amelia from The Black Hour, and Naledi from A Princess in Theory to the list of complex heroines. That's all. Every other heroine was a variation of a sweet, pretty doll whose shy modesty sends hunky men into mad frenzies of lust.

Readers want wish fulfillment. I get it. I too enjoy my escapist K-dramas with the same "good girl"/"cool guy" dynamic. But I also expect more from writers today. I expect heroines to be flawed people who grow and learn through the events of the plot.

If a heroine learns anything at all in most books, it's how to value herself and all her great qualities. This is a fine moral, but it seems to be the only moral you see in every novel aimed at women and girls.

Why? Do writers and publishers believe female readers can't handle any lesson more substantial than, "Believe in yourself, because you're perfect just the way you are"? That women only like pink, glittery, sugar-sweet Cinderella stories, and they'll throw tantrums if a book makes them think?

As shown by Scarlet O'Hara, this is not the case.

Halloween Fiction Contests November 1, 2018

Last Saturday our local newspaper, the Bend Bulletin, published the winners of its second annual Halloween Fiction Contest. My submission, "The Haunted Library," took second place!

Scan of The Haunted Library, published October 27, 2018

The journalist misunderstood a few things I said on the phone and wrote, "Tamara Marnell accomplished two firsts with 'The Haunted Library' – it's the first time she has published a short story, and the first time she has written horror."

Neither of those statements are true. I won a newspaper's Halloween fiction contest once 1997, with the story "The Haunted Path." My mother dug up the clipping and sent me a scan.

Scan of The Haunted Path, published October 28, 1997

I personally like "The Haunted Path" more than "The Haunted Library." That story won first place in the Ages 8-10 category, compared to the second place I got this year, so clearly it is superior. At least my skill in writing titles hasn't deteriorated.

The Haunted Library (2018)

I like the quiet.

I like the calm of the university library on a chilly autumn evening, the sounds of muffled whispers and fingertips on keyboards. I like to sit in my favorite armchair on the second floor and watch the sun set over the campus quad, turning the golden trees black against the fiery sky.

Mary doesn't get it. This afternoon she made a dramatic entrance in a sexy wedding dress splattered with blood, holding a bouquet of black lilies and a hatchet.

"Why aren't you dressed up?" Mary asked.

"I am," I said. "I'm dressed as a college student."

Mary rolled her eyes. "You're gonna go to the library again, aren't you? Come on, it's Halloween! The one day a year we get to go wild and wreak havoc!"

But I'm not the wild type. I don't enjoy going out to hunt for guys. I don't like guys. Not since... Anyway, I prefer to spend the evening with a good book.

The sky is dark now, and the library is empty. The intercom crackles. "May I have your attention, please. The library will close in five minutes."

I ignore the announcement. The staff never see me here. I zip up my hoodie and burrow into my armchair.

A nasal voice startles me. "Hey, pretty girl. What're you doing here all by yourself?"

A man leans on the back of my chair. There's something creepy about him. Maybe it's the tangled, greasy hair. Or the cheesy getup. He looks like he stole a costume from the set of Titanic and ripped it up with dull scissors.

He says, "It's dangerous to be here on Halloween. Haven't you heard of the Killer Poet?"

I don’t like the way he grins at me. I hug my book close.

"Back in the nineties, the Poet murdered three girls here. He cut their throats with an aluminum bookmark."

"As if," I scoff.

The man leans close. His breath stinks of alcohol and rot. "The Poet still haunts this place. Every Halloween, he trolls the library for new victims. Girls who are pretty, and weak, and all alone...just like you."

I look down to avoid the man's leering eyes, and I see the tattered book of poetry in his hand. A bookmark gleams between the pages. Metallic. Sharp. Bloodstained.

Over the intercom, a calm voice says, "May I have your attention, please. The library is now closed. Thank you!"

The man grabs me with icy, gnarled hands.

I scream, but no one can hear me. No one will walk by. No one will see me.

The man pushes me down. He covers my mouth and unzips my hoodie.

Then he yelps and lets go.

Ah, he saw it. The gash across my throat, where the Poet slit it twenty years ago.

The man stumbles back. He falls to the floor, dropping his silly props. What an amateur costume. The real Poet wasn’t greasy. He was charming and kind. So kind...until he killed me.

I reach out to steal the man's life, like the Poet stole mine.

The man clutches at his neck, but there's no point. He can't breathe. He can't scream. He's trapped, and weak, and all alone.

The intercom fizzles. "May I have your attention, please. You will die now. Thank you!"

The man struggles to get away from me. He claws at the carpet desperately. His grimy nails bend and break.

His fingers close around his bookmark. He throws it at me. Distracted, I release my hold on him. He gasps for air and runs down the stairs. He sprints for the doors, out into the dark quad.

That was foolish of him. Mary haunts the quad on Halloween. She does so love to wreak havoc.

The man's blood-curdling screams fill the air. The hatchet thuds once, twice...ten times. Then all is quiet.

I like the quiet.

The Haunted Path (1997)

One day I was walking home from school. For Show and Tell that day, I had brought an old antique doll that my mother had given me. I came to an old path that had a sign that read, "No trespassing."

I peered around the sign. Suddenly, someone came up behind me. I spun around, letting go of the doll. It went flying down the path and out of sight. It was only my little brother. I caught a glimpse of him as he ran around the corner, giggling.

Now what was I going to do? If I didn't bring the doll home, my mom would be boiling mad. If I walked onto the path and someone saw me, I would probably have to pay some major bucks. I decided to get the doll. I looked around me to see if anyone was watching, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the path.

It was getting late, and it was creepy with all of the twists and turns in the road and sometimes the bushes and tree branches brushed against me. I heard eerie sounds coming from a house that loomed ahead in the darkness. Was that the antique doll just ahead? Yes it was. I started toward it.

A viscious (sic) creature leaped out at me. I couldn't tell what it was, but it had sharp teeth, horrifying claws and was about 4 feet long. It lunged for me. I ducked. I grabbed the doll and ran. The creature followed. My friend knew a lot about monsters. What was it that she had said? I couldn't remember.

I ran faster and faster. Aha! Now I remember! Most monsters are afraid of light. There was a lighted street lamp just ahead, where the sign was. I ran hard. My lungs were burning. I was almost there when the creature hurled itself at me, claws out, teeth bared. Then it stopped. I was at the street lamp. It ran away, howling with terror.

I was safe now. I walked toward my house. When I came in, my mother said, "My goodness. It's almost supper time. What kept you?"

"It's a long story," I said. I put my backpack down and walked out of the kitchen.