The social justice reckoning in our little corner of the Internet has been inspiring to see. Furries have listened to and amplified the voices of its BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) population, and we can speak up about our unique experience in the fandom more than ever. But the cultural divide we’re trying to bridge has proven to be both deeper and more nebulous than any of us realized. It’s a process that contains many unseen pitfalls, and even the most well-meaning of us are bound to stumble now and again. All of us, even me, have our blind spots.
Difursity: Stories By Furs of Color is an anthology that aimed to challenge the monolithic whiteness of publishing by starting in our own space. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Thurston Howl’s Bound Tales imprint brought us five stories told from an outsider’s perspective…mostly. Four are intriguing tales from writers in the Asian diaspora, representing Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam. The fifth is an opportunity to learn how to discuss these pitfalls we’re bound to run into as we seek to better understand each other.
My favorite story in the anthology is “Vietnamized” by Allison Thai. Mindy is an Indochinese Tiger taking the big step of introducing her African Elephant boyfriend, Ugo, to her traditional Vietnamese parents. Their initial, strong disapproval sets off a chain of events that leads Mindy to lose her grasp of the English language entirely. The shock of the tragedy, and the long period of adjustment to her new life, brings Ugo and the family of Tigers together through connecting with Mindy’s native tongue.
The situation is a bit far-fetched, but Thai grounds the story with strong characters and a compelling narrative. As someone in a mixed-race relationship, I sympathized strongly with Mindy and Ugo — it’s never easy to navigate through the difficult terrain of introducing someone into a wholly different and sometimes insular culture. Mindy’s nervousness about her family’s reaction to Ugo felt real to me, because I’ve seen my husband wrestle with those same emotions. When you love your family and want them to share your life, it’s very hard to deal with intolerant views. The complicated, intertwined feeling of love, anger, and disappointment can be torture to go through, and Thai illuminates that quite well.
The story also does a great job of blending its furriness into its setting. Thai peppers her narrative with small details that point to the lived reality of animal-people — Ugo twisting his trunk with nerves, or Mindy’s display of affection by stroking his tusks, or Mindy’s father unsheathing his claws to count the reasons her boyfriend is a bad match. It’s another small but important step of grounding the world, which makes Mindy’s improbable turn much easier to buy.
AlSong’s “Rekindling” is another solid effort. Charlie, a Laotian Small-Clawed Otter, comes back to his small hometown from his Seattle university for spring break. There, he tries to reconnect with a few important aspects of his history — the language and culture of his family, and the few friendships he made in high school before leaving. I love that AlSong balances the frequently opposed identities that are nonetheless important for him to keep — his identity as a Laotian-American, and his identity as a cis gay male. While Charlie struggles with leaving one identity to incorporate the other, his friend Ford struggles with following the path to a larger world and more opportunity. There are also nice furry touches here, like the indoor pool of the Vongphachanh’s apartment being the place where the family gathers to eat papaya salad and watch Thai soap operas. Overall, it’s a nice encapsulation of the second-generation experience for an immigrant family, and how tricky it can be to hold onto your traditions while embracing the opportunity of a cosmopolitan future.
MikasiWolf’s pair of stories, “In Better Times” and “Where Souls Go”, are a bit less successful. The first features a concept that could work, but falls down in its presentation. The cadence of the prose is a bit too repetitive, and the images conjured are too general to have much impact; it would have been better served by punchier prose that pointed more towards the specific details of the world he was building. “Where Souls Go” lands better, but the characterization could have been stronger and I would have liked to see Little Biscuit learn the lesson he did more actively; most of the story is a fairly static conversation with his dying grandmother, so we’re told a lot more than we’re shown. I couldn’t connect to Little Biscuit or the souls he was meant to help because they don’t really interact and influence each other. Both stories could have used cleaner prose to focus their points.
Then there’s “No Substitutes Allowed” by Laurie Hall, which is — and there’s no easy way to say this — a racist story. It casts the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame as a jive-talking woodland creature who has an arrangement with Granny to break bread and keep the peace. It’s written in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by a white author from New England. The word “uppity” is used in the first paragraph and three times in a short three pages.
There’s a lot wrong with this, but first, let me say that I don’t believe the author was malicious in her intent at all. The patois she uses evokes the Br’er Rabbit tales and Disney’s problematic Song of the South. I read the story as an affectionate homage to the unique speech of southern Black Americans. But the use of the language is not something you should do carelessly, and that’s been done here.
AAVE is an aspect of the Black American experience that has frequently been hard to reconcile. It’s so ubiquitous, especially on the Internet, that it’s frequently adopted in wider circles, and there’s no clear consensus on the unspoken rules for what’s acceptable and what’s not. Most of the time, problematic speech is a “know it when I see it” kind of thing. What makes it so difficult to use if you’re not a Black American is understanding the context in which the language developed. When it’s used to evoke a set of stories inextricably linked to a time in American history we still haven’t fully coped with, like the antebellum South, it’s incredibly important to understand the effect that will have on an audience.
The particulars of AAVE require a knowledge of its history and/or the lived experience of its culture to understand. That’s why it’s so easy to stumble over a false note or cause offense; a word that might seem innocuous on its surface can be loaded with meaning invisible to those outside of the culture. AAVE has also been weaponized by racists to paint us as stupid, uneducated, and mentally inferior. People who aren’t Black are always going to draw side-eye when trying to use it, because it’s something that connects us to our shared cultural experience and a painful history we’re still feeling the effects of. When the dominant culture comes in to treat such a fundamental part of our identity as a costume, or a writing exercise, it feels belittling. It’s a flattening of our culture that shows a lack of understanding, not only of the language itself, but of the shared trauma from which it was birthed.
The word “uppity” points directly to that trauma. It has a long, established history of racist connotations, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable to see that word coming from a white writer who, for all intents and purposes, is pretending to be Black while telling this story. What’s worse, seeing this in an anthology nominally written by furs of color as the only story speaking to the Black experience is disheartening. It sits there, third in a group of other stories that offers needed insight into the lives of the Asian diasporas, as an example of how even well-meaning attempts to bridge our cultural divide can instead highlight how far apart we really are.
While the author should be aware of the problematic nature of the story, its inclusion in Difursity is an editorial failure. I don’t know what the editorial process was like, and I certainly understand the difficulty of making sure an author is from the background they’re representing in their fiction, but the author’s bio links to her Facebook page. There’s no indication that Hall is a furry there (or at her Amazon page), or that she’s BIPOC. That should have given the editors pause in itself, but the fact the story was written in digital blackface should have been disqualifying right on its own.
I hope the editors take greater care with their story selection for the upcoming second anthology, and at the very least employ sensitivity readers or cultural consultants for stories written by authors outside of the culture highlighted.
Overall, Difursity is a welcome effort at expanding the idea of what furry fiction can be. However, it’s also a misstep that shows we still have work to do when it comes to responsible representation. There are resources available for Writing The Other that I strongly encourage all authors use to check their blind spots, and I encourage editors to be mindful of welcoming other voices into the slush pile. It may make putting together the next anthology a more difficult, slower process; but very few things worth doing are easy.
I sincerely hope that this experience is one we can learn from and use to be better. I’m rooting for the success of this initiative.