Elizabeth Barrette

The Helix fiasco first appeared as a small cloud on my horizon and soon welled up into a memorable storm. The initial affront consisted of a rejection letter containing language derogatory of Middle Eastern people. (While “worm-brained mentality” may be arguably restricted to terrorists, “sheetheads” is just plain racist.) Some authors previously published in the magazine objected to this when the letter escaped into the wild. When Yoon Ha Lee asked to remove her story, more rudeness emerged including a claim that the story “never did make sense” and the archive page was changed to, “Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.” Then came the announcement that it would cost $40 to have a story removed from the archive. I watched the evolution with some bemusement: an epic demonstration of how not to behave. I also tracked it on my blog, “The Wordsmith’s Forge,” for discussion among the many writers and readers in my audience.

If this had stopped with the first stupid thing, I would probably have forgotten which magazine had done it, after a few months. Now? I think Helix = bigot is pretty well stamped on my eyeballs.

So far, I’ve seen several good things come out of this situation:

1) A lot of people are discussing racism, speculative writers of color, and character ethnicity in fantasy and science fiction. Many of those discussions are reasoned rather than just name-calling in one direction or the other. While I regret the impetus for the discussions, I’m glad to see them. They’re putting often invisible writers and stories into the spotlight, and helping people who are interested in these topics identify each other. This includes writers talking about upcoming publications by and/or about people of color, which are probably attracting more eagerly-waiting-readers who might otherwise have missed out.

2) People are also discussing what does and does not constitute professional behavior for editors and writers. Many of those discussions contain excellent advice and insights. As I often say, “If you can’t lower the price, raise the profit.”

3) Some former Helix authors have banded together to reprint their material on this website. This entails a certain amount of professional risk in support of personal principles.

In the wake of the Helix ruckus, a number of fantasy and science fiction editors are announcing that they want to see more submissions from people of color. That’s getting a mixed reception, because it looks like knee-jerk panic in some cases: “Hey, look at me not being a racist!” Others may be taking this opportunity to attract writers skilled at portraying diverse and interesting cultures. The flurry among editors may thus illuminate the difference between tokenism and representation: If they’re only buying a story because the author is a person of color and they don’t want their magazine to seem racist, that’s tokenism. It’s an improvement over racism, but in a small “cannibals with forks” kind of way. However, if they’re buying a story because the author’s ethnicity lends richness to the storytelling and creates something intriguingly different than stories told by Caucasian authors, that’s representation. It makes the magazine a venue for all different kinds of voices, which makes for an interesting read. As in other types of employment, the difference is a matter of depth: tokenism is surface without substance, intended to hold true change at bay; while representation entails structural differences that capitalize on the advantages of diversity.

So here I am, putting my poem “Heaven Spent” in this antihelical collection. Why?

William Sanders has a right to his opinions, bigoted or not, and a right to express them freely. Other people have a right to choose whether or not to associate with him and his magazine accordingly. I find those opinions objectionable enough, and noisy enough, that I’d rather not do business there anymore. It’s just not the kind of worldview I support, or the kind of world I want to inhabit.

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and on that level, I found Sanders’ behavior to be appallingly unprofessional. Business mail such as author correspondence is not an appropriate place to air personal prejudices or use insulting language; it should remain civil. Neither is it professional to pursue a personal vendetta in public to the extent that it damages one’s magazine. Some editors have always behaved in a wildly colorful and often objectionable way, as have some authors; but those aren’t people I really want to work with either.

I believe that, as much as possible, people should behave in a polite and responsible manner; they should respect and value each other’s differences; and when disagreeing, they should address facts rather than degenerating to personal attacks. I believe that racism diminishes both the speaker and the target, that it makes the world a less hospitable place to live, and that honorable people should oppose it when the opportunity presents. My writing comprises much of my presence in this world. So for me, speaking out against Sanders’ behavior and placing my work on this website is how I put my money where my mouth is.