Under My Skin: A Response to Gene O' Neill's "Pale Skin, Grey Eyes"
[Note 1/18/14: It looks like the story has been cleaned up by a copyeditor, so some of the line-level issues detailed below no longer apply.]
I don't tear apart another author's work lightly. I've never done it before. I just don't think this should have made it out of the slush pile. I found the use of race and disability in this work to be irresponsible and poorly managed, and there isn't any area of story, from worldbuilding to language, that fared much better. I don't know Mr. O'Neill, and I wish him no ill will. I'm attacking the story, not the author.
Gene O'Neill's "Pale Skin, Grey Eyes," was published in Apex Magazine's January issue, out now. It was one of two new stories in the issue, alongside Ursula Vernon's lovely "Jackalope Wives."
I read this story on Monday. My gut reaction was sadness. How could the magazine that had published my favorite story of 2013 (Rachel Swirsky's sublime "If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love," which I am nominating for the Nebula) also publish this piece?
On my first read I thought it was hideously off-base in its treatment of race, gender, and disability. I couldn't dismiss it. It stayed with me all day, but not in a productive way. A friend and I read it out loud to each other that evening, analyzing it line by line, trying to figure out what the author and the editor were thinking. I contacted a friend at Apex to ask whether this piece had been bought by the new editor, Sigrid Ellis, or by the outgoing editors. She put Sigrid in touch with me.
Sigrid's response was gracious. I don't know her personally, but I respect her willingness to engage me on this story. An editor has no responsibility to explain her reasoning, and yet she took the time to share her perspective on the story. She also encouraged me to blog my response and to share her response.
She wrote "That story made me uncomfortable. I read it over at over, wondering whether it was a story worth publishing or not. In the end, clearly I decided it was a discomfort that I found to be worth exploring, and I published it."
To me, this story did not generate productive discomfort. There was no payoff that showed the author had any awareness of the power of the words he used.
In my first letter to her, I focused on the two aspects I found most problematic: the story's treatment of race and of disability. I decided to leave out the other problems I saw in the story: problems of gender, of writing mechanics, of worldbuilding, of storytelling.
First letter to Apex:
Thank you for reaching out to me. Let me first say that I think Apex is a wonderful magazine, and I look forward to your tenure there. All of this is said in what I hope is a constructive manner. I realize that it has already been published, but I appreciate this chance for dialogue.
The first of my two main areas of concern with this story regards its treatment of race. "A Brownskin, who had somehow slipped past the perimeter guards and illegally entered the village. This caused quite a stir in the people, because the few Brownskin immigrants accepted into Blueskin coastal villages as common laborers had caused nothing but problems — a constant strain on social services, our true religion clashing with their strange heathen beliefs, too many incidents of violent confrontations between them and villagers, and, perhaps most important, the ugly Brownskin males were sexually aggressive toward Blueskin women. There had been a number of reported savage rapes."
Looking at the words used to describe brownskins, they are dwarfish (in an earlier description) immigrants, common laborers, nothing but problems, a strain on social services, heathen, violent, ugly, sexually aggressive rapists. Is there any one word among those descriptors that hasn't been used to describe brown people in America? If this were a story about race, I would want to see how the author turned expectations around after using those descriptors, or showed the individuality within the group. This isn't about race, though, and that's all the characterization we get of all the brownskin people. They are a group without exception, because they aren't even in this story other than in these two chunks of history. They exist in this story only as a generic unsavory type. We don't even learn why the blueskin people sided with them against the white skins in the war. Were they not as savage then? They don't exist except as boogeymen that never appear on scene.
On to the blueskins. Our narrator's first description of her kind is "We were all short, dark people." In the wartime exposition, she describes the Brownskins as dwarfish. Are the Brownskins dwarfish in comparison to the giant Whiteskins? Or in comparison to the "short" Blueskins? More importantly, what ethnic group refers to itself by a single hue? The arguments over the Redskins football team are just one example of hundreds of tribes being lumped together with a single epithet. Cherokees don't have the same skin tone as Mohawks. Igbo Nigerians don't have the same skin tone as Yoruba Nigerians. More to my point, one Igbo person might not have the same skin tone as his brother. I have one sister who can tan, and another who is as white as porcelain.
The narrator is twelve. She has heard stories of a long ago war -- so long ago it is referred to as ancient and legendary. She has seen some pictures in books and on vids of other peoples. No stranger has appeared in town for over thirty years, so she has never seen one. Why, then, are all of her descriptions of her own group, the only group she has ever known, descriptions of her own group in relation to others? 'We are short.' But surely we are not uniform in size. Is a child smaller than an adult? There was at least one warrior mentioned as tall. 'We are dark people.' Are all of them the same hue? After thirty years of complete isolation, would they think about themselves in those terms? Usually 'we' simply are. Then others are defined in relation to us.
The reductive nature of these groupings makes what could be a long history of differing cultures into a story about skin tone. Why was the war fought? We don't know. Hatred based on skin tone is nothing new, but if you're going to present a story about it, it has to reveal something new. This doesn't.
Now, on to disability.
Here's how L'Voli's story arc reads to my eyes.
L'Voli has a physical disability. His mind is intact. A series of seizure-like contortions (a phrase that rings odd but I'll leave it) confined him to a wheelchair permanently. Is he paralyzed? Does he have use of his hands? His disability has a name, but in practice it seems to be "wheelchair."
Paraphrase of the opening lines: "You can't go. It won't be a safe place for children, especially you, disabled son, because you are disabled."
Mother then whispers in Tem's ear in front of L'Voli, about L'Voli. Take him away, occupy him, keep him quiet. He is allowed to get away with being impertinent because of his disability. All of this is tremendously condescending.
L'Voli is wheeled up to the roof to watch the meteor shower. He is up there for hours while everyone else goes to bed. The family has taken a child with no apparent ability to move his own wheelchair up to a roof and left him there for the night. This is child abuse.
He tells them his theories. They grin, chuckle, shake their heads, laugh dismissively. Tem doesn't crack a smile, but only because she doesn't know what to believe, not because she believes him. Even though "I knew that L’Voli often had an uncanny intuitive, almost precognitive, grasp of other people’s future actions, and, especially the outcomes of unusual events of this nature." (Side note: I thought there had never been any unusual events of this nature in his lifetime.)
L'Voli never once uses this magic power in the rest of the story. There is no explanation for its existence, and no demonstration of it beyond this telling. He is now a Magical Disabled Boy for no reason other than the convenience of this moment.
"I found a protected viewing spot under a blue oak for L’Voli in his wheelchair, reminded by First Mother that today my major responsibility was my brother’s well being. I locked his wheels in place with his back up against the tree trunk, making sure he had ample water. Then, I climbed back and helped both my mothers" I tied the puppy to a tree, and left it a bowl of water. (Can he use his hands? He can't wheel his own wheelchair. Can he lift water to his mouth?) Again, abuse.
They watch the proceedings.
L'Voli demonstrates understanding of the situation, maybe because he is Magical Disabled Boy. The mob turns to flee. Tem stands behind the wheelchair, holding on to the handles, while people crash into her brother in the wheelchair. Would she not protect him better from any side but behind? There's a tree protecting them from the back, but some people crash into him anyway.
Then, because he is in so much pain from having some people bump into him that he can't bear to live any more, he decides to die. He expresses admiration for the person that is slaughtering the only people he has ever known. (Okay, if my family treated me like that, maybe I would too.)
For the first time in the story, because it is convenient to the narrative, he wishes he could leave his crippled body. He suggests that his sister leave him and run away to find the secret gate out of the city that she never found in all of their previous years of searching.
Tem thinks about how her mother told her to take care of her brother. She decides that the best way to do that is to release the brake on his wheelchair and actively push him down the hill. To me, the most likely result of this would be the wheelchair tipping halfway down, spilling L'Voli out on the ground and leaving him to die one of several horrible deaths, injured and abandoned. She flees.
What has L'Voli accomplished in this story? He has been ignored and abused by his family. He's made some predictions that may or may not have come true. He has asked to die. He is left to his death. He has no agency whatsoever.
How does he feel when they are treating him poorly? We never get a hint of his interior beyond his magical predictions. We don't know his hopes, his dreams, his opinions.
Tem is a semi-omniscient, neutral, opinion-less narrator. L'Voli is a plot device that she pushes around. At no point does either of them tackle any of the big issues by making choices.
I read the Apex interview with Mr. O' Neill after reading the story, and was struck by a couple of sentences "taught adaptive P.E. back in my youth, came in contact with a number of *disabled* people. I found many of them to be inspiring and often the people around them were awesome. " and "of course there are always people that seem to rise up against the bigotry of their times and society. And like I mentioned above, I’d met a number of *heroes* in my work in adaptive P.E."
Clearly, Mr. O'Neill has good intentions, but his insistence on treating people with disabilities as inspiring heroes (and the people around them as uniformly awesome) does not have the desired effect. People with disabilities are just as complicated as those without them. The same person can be an Olympic hero and an abusive murderer.
L'Voli exists to have a disability. He isn't presented with any interests or any personality. We never see his reactions to anything. Is he a hero for being in a wheelchair? Is he by default an inspiring person? Is his family automatically inspiring for putting up with him? People with disabilities do not exist simply to be inspiring. In my opinion, this is condescending at best and dehumanizing at worst.
In fiction, people of color and people with disabilities should always be living, breathing humans to their writers and readers first and foremost. Their skin color, culture and abilities are pieces of who they are but should never be the whole thing. To present blank stereotypes of characters and races dehumanizes them and reinforces the preconceived stereotypes society already has about them.
It is important to continue having conversations about disability and race and gender and all of the other weighty issues that make up human existence. I love seeing them through the prism of speculative fiction when it is done carefully and thoughtfully, and with full awareness of the choices made by the narrative. There is baggage and weight that comes with every decision. This story strikes me as a woefully misguided attempt to tackle big issues.
Thank you again for writing, and I look forward to our continuing conversation.
Oh, thank you so much for emailing! I do appreciate it.
What I find absolutely fascinating about your impression of the story is that I completely agree with you in your assessment of the text. I find the treatment of L'Voli in the story to be *horrifying*. "Pale Skin, Grey Eyes," was my horror genre selection for the issue. I was appalled. I remember covering my mouth and wincing when I reached the last paragraphs.
What I found interesting, and worthy of publication, however, was that I, personally, took the presentation of race and disability in the story, and the death of L'Voli at the end, to be a ringing indictment of the Blueskin culture and people. I took the story to be a not-very-coded condemnation of self-righteous insular cultures who presume themselves to be right in all things.
Moreover, I took the *Whiteskin's* portrayal to *also* be an indictment of close-minded, blind cultures who judge everyone by their own internal standards. I think the Whiteskin is just as wrong as everyone else. I thought *every* culture in the story was blind, blind, pig-headedly and maliciously blind to anyone different, anyone outside.
Now. I cannot and do not speak for the author. I am speaking to you as a fellow reader. There is quite obviously room for your experience and interpretation to exist alongside mine. No story lives until it meets the reader, and then it takes on life of its own.
I would really love it if you blogged about your reading of the text. If you do, please feel free to quote my email, if-and-only-if you so desire. I think your take on the story is important.
And my response. She has not answered this one yet, but again, she has no obligation to do so. She expressed herself well in the above letter.
My Second Letter to Apex
Thanks for responding. I'll definitely blog this. Do you have time to continue through one further exchange? It's interesting to see your thought process, and that we have the same assessment of certain aspects but arrive at different conclusions about the story. I see where we diverged.
As a writer, I've always been taught that you make a pact with your readers in the early paragraphs. If you want them to believe you have written a mystery, you give them a crime. If you want to convey that they are reading science fiction, you give them something scientific or futuristic, however small, near the beginning. "It was all a dream" cheats a reader who has bought a bill of goods, which is why "it was all a dream" is frowned upon. Granted, Apex is a magazine of horror and dark fantasy, and O'Neill is a horror writer, so I should have attempted to view it through that filter.
I didn't approach this as a horror story for two reasons. One is because the early paragraphs sold me other things: a low-tech society, possibly on our earth, possibly elsewhere. More importantly, I was sold a story with characters introduced in the first paragraph, and I expected them to be characters the whole way through, with motivations and story arcs and some moment of agency. If I'm to go with your explanation that this is an exaggeration of societal faults, then I have to accept their transformation into symbols. If they are all symbols and exaggerations, acting with the best of intentions, then the boy in a wheelchair who sees things for what they are is still a horrible caricature of the noble cripple. The brownskins are still savage rapists with no place of their own in the story to prove or disprove that characterization.
Secondly, in order to believe this as a deft skewering of closed society, I would have had to trust the writer. This story did not establish my trust because it got so many story-level things wrong. The words "consul" and "counsel" are used interchangeably multiple times, when "council" would have been the most appropriate homonym. "Fierce-some" is not a word. "Respectively" is used in place of "respectfully." "Incredulously" is used in place of "Incredibly." The capitalized Permit and Petition are dangled in front of us through most of the story, but they're more or less redundant terms and they don't add anything in the end since there is no such thing as a denied petition. The village is coastal; does the wall end at the sea? Do they grow anything other than sweeteners? Do they eat all the sweetener themselves, since they don't trade? There is a small, secret tunnel, approved by a petition, the whereabouts of which are a mystery to Tem, but it was used by an entire guild for several weeks every year until only five years before. That's an awful lot of people knowing its location very recently. Were none of the sweetwood tappers in the crowd? Was that where they were all running? These are all little things, but the bottom line is that I would never have read any condemnation of the society presented into the story because the author did not show me he had the control to do so.
As you said, we can only respond as readers interpreting the author's intent. I agree that it's not very coded, but to me, if it was meant to be a condemnation, it missed that mark. You say every culture in the story was blind, but there are no cultures in this story. The only characterization we get of the brownskins is their savagery. The Whiteskin we meet may not be a Whiteskin at all. Just because the whiteskins are also bad doesn't mean that the particular language used to discuss the superfluous brownskins isn't loaded. Blueskin culture isn't a culture either. We get little glimpse of anything beyond a hodgepodge of law and religion.
The treatment of L'Voli is horrifying, indeed. His sister's casual violence would have definitely made this a horror story if we had any view of her interior or L'Voli's. Unfortunately, even if I take this to be a condemnation of Blueskin culture and the way even a young girl can get swept up in a misguided idea of what's right, then L'Voli is still used as a boy-shaped prop in a wheelchair.
In the interview with you about your hopes for the magazine, you wrote, "if most genre fiction is written by straight white dudes featuring straight white dudes about the difficulties of being a straight white dude, the rest of the world is not being represented." Tem reads to me like a white man wearing the skin of a blue girl.
So here she is, a twelve year old, about to turn thirteen in a month, in a culture where at thirteen women put on masks. She never once makes any sort of remark about that upcoming milestone. Is she excited? Scared? Resigned? She has two mothers, but First Mother is the only one who is given even a title. Why is there a second mother? What is her role? How is she secondary? Whose mother is she? Do the mothers do anything other than make food and chide their children? Tem never shows any interest in the things that her society's women do, even though she is about to become one.
Father, on the other hand, gets a whole paragraph. A whole history of his working career. His job, his respect, his prestige. Not in a proud-of-daddy way. It's a dispassionate telling, in a narrator-needs-to-convey-this-information-for-the-sake-of-plot way, as if she has been assigned the task of talking about a famous man because the plot needs him. If she's meant to be identifying with the women, she should be interested in their goings-on. If she's an outlier and wants a career like her father's, or if she wants out altogether, she should express that. If she's excited about opting in, or neutral about it, we still need to hear it. Even if the author is trying to show that so-called women's work is lesser in this society, a woman would see its importance – or emphasize its unimportance in the greater picture.
(Further digression on women: as a friend points out, the removal of the stranger's hood instantly outs her as female. The villagers gasp and recognize her as female instantly. How is a head female? Especially for a group of people of an entirely different culture/species/etc? If by definition a woman is a mask-wearer, wouldn't their first thought be that this is a man's face?)
Back to the main characters. L'Voli reads to me like a well-intentioned non-disabled person's idea of a guy in a wheelchair: never complaining until he needs to complain at the end. Never doing anything for himself. Show how he eats, if he's a real boy. Show his frustration, even once. Is he expected to work one day? Does he want to? Does he enjoy being treated like an invalid? Does he get sick of being pushed around? If his well-intentioned sister left him with water under the tree, how does he drink it: is it a straw from a backpack? A cup in his fist? A glass set thoughtlessly out of reach? How is he even alive at all to reach this point when his family has the habit of leaving him out on the roof all night? He is magically precognitive when it is needed, in a society that otherwise has no other magic that we see. Does he use that for himself? Does he see his own future? The only things he expresses are sympathy for a murderer and a desire to die.
If he is meant to be the moral compass when he looks around and sympathizes with the killer because his society is bad, he needs to have shown some moral compass action before that. Having your characters develop their first opinions in the moment before their death is not character development. Having a character decide to sacrifice himself and then having his sister choose the terms of that sacrifice, without consulting him, is a final act of dehumanization by the one person who might have understood him.
Even if this is a condemnation of self-righteous cultures and self-righteous individuals, as you said in that interview, "When you are writing your story, have sympathy for all your characters. All of them. All of your characters have to have comprehensible motivations. Mysterious, sure, but the sort of thing you can imagine your neighbor contemplating. If you find yourself writing a moment, and you have a character do something terrible, ask yourself why they are doing that thing. I’m not talking about your protagonist, I’m talking about the side characters and villains."
Where are the parents when the mob starts to flee? Do they really abandon their twins? That's pretty terrible. They haven't shown any love for L'Voli, but what about Tem?
We know why they are xenophobic, but why are the other family members cruel to L'Voli? Why is Tem the only one who is unfailingly solicitous toward him? How does she feel about that? How does he feel about her, or about any of them?
Why does the Whiteskin allow herself to be imprisoned before starting the bloodbath, if she had the power to kill them all along?
Why does nobody frisk her or remove her cloak before her imprisonment?
What are the town drunk and the town harlot doing besides being props beside the stranger?
Nobody in this story has motivation.
When I read your response, I tried to go back and read the story as a modern update on "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," or "The Lottery," as a cautionary tale. I tried the angle of "this author is purposefully hitting every button, trying to exaggerate a xenophobic, sexist, ableist society to mythic proportions." But that's too many isms for one story to bear. The beauty of speculative fiction is its ability to remove something from our own society and place it in an elsewhere or an elsewhen, the better to examine it from a distance. I'm not sure I've ever read a story that successfully examined/condemned this many of our faults and failures at once.
In order for that to succeed, I think one character would have to be honest. Not better than his or her society, or outside of it. Just honest and opinionated. We would have needed Tem to be a part of her society, interacting with it as a 12-year-old girl would. We would have needed her to hate taking care of her brother, or else love it. She would have needed to form an opinion on masks – looking forward to wearing her lacy, filigreed (is this lingerie?) mask, or else dreading it. She would have needed to believe her brother, or disbelieve him.
L'voli would have needed to express pain earlier, not just at the end. He would have been disappointed when his sister didn't believe him, or happy when one person in his family believed him. He would have said, "don't talk about me as if I'm not here." Even if the society was terrible to him and that was the point, we needed his reaction to that. L'Voli would have needed to be a living, breathing character. And the story would have needed to be more than a series of clichés about race and gender and ability.
I appreciate your taking the time to correspond with me. I do understand your motivation for publishing the story now, even if I still don't see the merits of the story. I'm going to blog my analysis, as you suggested, and your responses. Even if we disagree about the merits of the story, I hope we can agree that something positive can come out of this conversation.
So that's where we're at. If she responds again and grants permission, I'll post her response here. In the meantime, I've had a few other thoughts, and some others from friends that I'll also put here.
I was in a critique group several years ago with a gifted writer of literary fiction. Her prose was truly beautiful, but her stories were frustrating. We had numerous fights over the icons in the story. I remember in particular that an "old man on a broken-hearted donkey" made his way down from the mountains and toward the truck, just to gaze into the eyes of the narrator.
"He's a Christ figure," the writer said.
"He can be a symbol later," I said. "He needs to be a character first."
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" works because there is a post office and a postmaster and a coal company and a barn, because women laugh softly together, and children choose the best stones, and people run late because they can't leave the dishes in the sink, and then they do something unspeakably horrible. There are over thirty named characters. It's a community. "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" works because we are introduced to a place of incomparable beauty, vividly described, and the prose itself slowly gets uglier, and the main character - that brilliant, uncompromising 'you' - is forced to make the choice.
My friend Donna points out that "if a character is not also a person there had better be a damn good reason. I was thinking about [James Tiptree Jr.'s] "The Women Men Don't See," in this context. Ruth isn't a symbol but for most of the story she's also not a full person because we see her through Don's eyes and he can't see her as a person. So her lack of personhood is his failure and is exploded when it's revealed that he has understood nothing of what is going on. Now there's a reason for a character to be flat - a reason that is integral to and makes thematic sense within the story."
My friend and I argued over this again and again, but I stand by my statement. The characters in a story need to be characters. It has to work on a story level before other meanings can be attached. It's okay to build up layers of symbolism afterward, but if they don't step off the page as people, the story will fail. The Apex interview with Sigrid shows she understands that. We have different views of its effectiveness in this story.
I think in the end this question of character is the reason this story bothered me so much it ate my entire week. This story robs everyone of personhood, but it doesn't do so in a way that gives me confidence that was the author's intent. We are told so much in this story and shown so little. The characterizations of race are irresponsible. Why choose brown and use those particular descriptors when you could choose any color in the rainbow? How can you write (or publish) a story reducing the differences between groups to skin color and then characterize them so broadly? See
The choices made for the main characters are no better. L'Voli is the heart of the story, the character with whom we spend every moment of the present action. Making a point about dehumanization would only work if he had started out as human.
I wish both Sigrid and Apex the best, and I appreciate this opportunity to examine how an author's choices affect a reader's experience, especially when tackling topics of identity. A successful story would have gotten under my skin by showing me a society gone awry; this got under my skin by showing me clichés layered on clichés without any payoff. From my perspective, this is probably the most wrongheaded story I've ever read in a professional magazine. It punched me in the gut for all the wrong reasons.
I'm going to close with a link to Daniel Jose Older's Buzzfeed article on Writing the Other. He gives 12 concise steps to avoid some of the problems that arise in this story.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the story.
Comments on my site require moderator approval and I'll be traveling this weekend. I will let through any comments that contribute to the conversation, but I don't have patience for trolls.