Old Post: Republic of Infidels & Race

This is a post from 2020, when I was just turning Republic from a series of screenplays into a series of novels. The discussion points are, I feel, still relevant.

I had a funny experience when I first posted the first draft of ROI on r/Screenwriting. An East Indian guy read the first couple pages and tried to convince me to change my Indian/Russian main character to Indian only, and switch her music preferences to Bollywood from Nirvana. I had to think myself through a little bit because I had to ask myself if I was co-opting, if I was “rejecting an Indian audience” – the only two options I had in this scenario according to this reader. I’m a white girl, I’m obligated to check myself, so I put this before the close friend I’ve been pitching this to for years. She’s from the subcontinent and she had the experience to confirm what I thought might be the issue. The guy, she surmised, was a Bollywood producer trying to get me to rewrite a script he wanted to use.

The lesson here isn’t that the internet is a weird place (it is) but that the guy who was trying to gaslight me in the strangest possible way didn’t read the full script. He was culturally conservative, didn’t like Rachel having a Russian mother, but tried to leverage as though I was being culturally presumptuous. He wasn’t reading the story he thought he was reading. If he’d read the full script past the first act, the bloodshed and brutality probably would’ve put him all the way off. Though, if he wants to adapt it into a musical, I’d love to see that.

But more to the point. I intentionally made Republic of Infidels diverse because I think a 2043 post apocalyptic scenario where Himalaya is the only continent is not a majority white scenario. I made decisions to use heritage in different ways to inform plot and character, and there are cultural cleavages, but there is no racial privilege system the way we understand it. There’s the people who have guns and the willingness to use them, and the people who don’t. If you’re Black and you get shot, it’s because you didn’t shoot the Russian speaking Sri Lankan guy who was aiming at you first. I used culture by virtue of geography, and thought harder about how cultures mix, the way nations create new nations through aggression. When the world mostly disappears, who’s left is a question of proximity and luck. I didn’t intend for there to be erasure — I wanted to make things hell for almost everyone as part of a larger pattern of entropy that, as of today, seems more and more predictable.

There are culturally distinctive groups of people, but they experience misfortune due to affiliation more than the way they look or the language they speak. I have very few called out Europeans and the ones that are I identify regionally by accent or name. Edward Blythe is also a Yousef. Lucretia is Irish, but she could be of any ethnicity. And I was not going to have the last thousand Americans be mostly white. I was not going to have a US Navy vessel full of white people show up, that’s not realistic even today. That’s why Delaware Ford is Black, Native, Southern Creole and a carrier captain, and the last Crow Sioux speaker once Hudson is killed. It means something in his world to have that identity, but it also means American in ours. It’s just so underrepresented that I have trouble looking up actors who fit some of heritages I’ve built for my characters. And these are heritages that absolutely exist now.

And that said, it’s on purpose that Sergei Vetrov is a called-out platinum blonde blue eyed psychopath. He’s not the story-driving antagonist, but he is a source of terror. I wanted to change the face of terror in 2043. He is the extremity of all of the worst that at the white right has to offer, but without the politics inherent in our reality. In his, he’s a supercharged, hyper masculine cold eyed killer, sexual predator, mass murderer. His only redemption is he’s not a hypocrite. But his society sees him as an apex predator because of his facility for death, not because of his race. The world that rewarded him and anyone else for their race is gone.

But the viewer does perceive all story through that world. I do. It wasn’t intended to be some kind of deep commentary, but the inversion was purposeful. Delaware and Hudson refer to Sergei as witiko, and in their lexicon that means “evil white man”, even though the wendigo/weetigo myth doesn’t refer specifically to evil white men. I took that inspiration from Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, and brought that nod with me because again – it’s not about erasure or abdication, and what gives me inspiration also fosters a need for me to honour my influences regardless of whether I racially inherited them or not. I can’t use witiko to describe Sergei without honouring the way Highway used it in his book.

There are no called-out white heroes in this show. Even if I just use the least conscientious argument to justify my creative choices, I’d say that we shouldn’t accept monochromatic representation because it is boring. That’s what happens when you erase humanity’s differences. Putting aside the fact that you are committing an offence against reality when you write something not bound by historical fact, you are a boring writer. That doesn’t mean shoehorning the Black American story into Chernobyl, but it does mean paying back the debt wherever you can. Especially in sci-fi and contemporary genres. Especially in genres where whiteness has dominated without reference to any historical or cultural justification.

Should you try to write Get Out if you’re white? No. But not because it’s got Black people in it, but because Blackness and Black erasure, and the experience of racism is integral to that specific story. I can and do write Black protagonists – but I don’t assume I know Blackness better than they do. My characters have experiences that are not within the concern of the story I’m telling. If I’m privileged enough to be able to hand that off to people of colour who want to bring it to life, they have everything they need to find that authenticity and I have fulfilled my part of the contract as a storyteller.

That’s the premise I start with when I make decisions about racial representation in a totally fictional story. I’m not talking about The President is a Black Woman in Space America in 2200 and gets five lines kind of inclusiveness we’ve had since the enlightened 90s. I mean a sense of realism in how things might actually evolve or devolve in a near-future, near-realistic genre. Bringing out new narratives, new plot devices. Ignored elements of story. I wouldn’t have been able to make these characters interesting or create these boundaries if I hadn’t fiddled with the combination ahead of time.

in a former life when this was a screenplay

I’m not going to write that Bollywood hit. It’s not my culture, not my story, I wasn’t invited, I don’t know it from inside, and I’m not needed. I’ve got plenty of other stories and insights of my own that other people don’t. I don’t need to borrow someone else’s trauma or pathos. No, I won’t exclude other experiences, yes I will try and always have diversity in my stories, but that doesn’t mean I need to put myself in a central role, wearing someone’s else life. And it shouldn’t be as much of a challenge for white writers to interrogate themselves or look beyond white voices for interpretation. Or just respect that we’re not entitled to that either and to take whatever backlash that comes when any writer takes a calculated risk.

Part of the problem is that there is no clear road that’s easy on our feelings, and we need to accept that. Just don’t ignore the harm you know you might be doing to someone else’s story, or their career opportunities. It’s not impossible to put compassion and empathy ahead of your ego as as creative.

And for the experienced produced white male majority writers: just because you can accurately fake something beautifully doesn’t mean you’re better or more entitled than someone who struggles with expression of their own truth, especially when you’ve had control over their voices and portrayal for a hundred and five years.