This week I’m pleased to welcome Author and co-Host of WROTE Podcast SA "Baz" Collins to my Blog. Let’s not waste any time and jump right in.
The Quagmire of Passing: When A Person of Color Eschews Heritage to Succeed
With the recent brouhaha over Persons of Color (PoC) being underrepresented across LGBT fiction (with a primary focus on the MM community of writers and publishers) and as a writer who is a person of color I decided now might be a good time to discuss this issue from a person of color point of view. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is a complicated issue and one that bears hearing out.
A little background before I really dig into it: I was born in the early sixties (at the height of segregation issues in society) to a Native American/White father and a deeply religious Latina mother. It was a different time. While my mother was second generation US citizen, she grew up seeing (if not wholly understanding) the differences that came to Mexican girls like herself when compared to her white girlfriends that attended her Catholic high school. My father moved to San Diego in his late teens with his older brother who enlisted with the Navy. Dad traded a life on the rez for an adventure in a big city with his brother. My uncle rented one end of a duplex owned by my mother’s family – that’s the setup of how my mother’s and father’s worlds collided.
To this point my mother led a very sheltered religious life. School, homework and chores made up her days. She had very few friends she saw outside of school. She just didn’t have the time – her parents worked very hard (her father during the day at the Naval base of North Island and her mother at night as a cleaning woman of a prominent bank).
She met my father as she walked home from school one afternoon. As she passed his part of the duplex yard my father and his brother burst through the screen door (nearly sheering it off its hinges in the process) wrestling in mid-air. They hit the ground and continued to wrestle one another without missing a beat. My mom turned up her nose and thought, “Show-offs …”. She continued on but my father stopped for a moment in wrestling with his brother and thought, “That’s the girl I’m gonna marry.” He just knew. She never saw him coming, but when my father set his mind to something it usually happened. My mom never stood a chance. They eventually dated and my mom relayed to us years later that when he first kissed her it was like fireworks. He proposed and they remained engaged for eight years before marrying – because my father wanted to show her that commitment was important to him as it should be for her. Every time he kissed her she said the fireworks were still there; it was a fourth of July that continued during their thirty-six years of marriage when my father suddenly passed on the very same day as the Columbine massacre. During those years my father taught my mother many things. He opened her isolated world; he showed her the meaning of patience and temperance – Dad was solidly Indian in that way. He led by example, treated everyone fairly (even when he was not). Being Northeastern Woodland Natives (the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois)), our skin tones are much lighter than the more rustic tones of our plains or Southwestern brothers and sisters. In short, Dad could pass (being perceived as white) if he wanted to. My mother, whose parents were mestizo (her father darker complected and her mother lighter) also had the benefit of passing. This is important in how my world was shaped by them both and how the oppression and prejudice of white privileged peoples perceived my immediate family.
From the time I was born (the first, with a brother and sister who followed), I was all about talking. My mom had a low children’s table that had the alphabet with an animal or item that was representational for each letter, where I would sit at to eat my meals. From the time I made the attempt to speak we played the game of “What’s That” where she’d point to a letter and say “What’s that?” and I was to learn to say what the animal or thing was painted there. I learned so quickly that I began to turn the table around, as it were, and started asking her. Sometimes, to test me, she’d purposely answer wrong and I would correct her. But in every case she made sure I enunciated every word as clearly as I could. This is important. My Mexican mother, who grew up speaking Spanish fluently in her home, quashed from a young age any knowledge of her native tongue to ensure that I spoke clearly. She relayed it to the three of us years later that it was important that none of her children had any perceived accent native to our heritage. She didn’t want us growing up being perceived as anything but white. This was a hard call. You see my brother took on the darker skin tone of her father’s side of the family. My younger sister and I didn’t. We, my sister and I, could easily pass. My brother simply did not have that option. His skin prevented it.
My mother ensured as we grew up that we were exposed to things white people did. We went to symphonies, ballet and live performance theater. We were well behaved children in these scenarios and my parents were often complimented on how well we acted at such events during intermissions and such. My mother also made sure that while we could watch television, every weekend, without fail, we were front and center never to miss the latest Masterpiece Theater offering.
We grew up as anglophiles. Let that sink in for a moment: a Native/Latino family immersed in British culture.
Oddly enough, the mainstay of our family diet was predominantly Mexican with a few of my father’s family recipes thrown in. We ate our collective culture even if we didn’t give it voice. I learned to cook all the family recipes from my abuelita but kept that knowledge solely within our family, rarely sharing it with close friends.
While we attended family functions on my mother’s side of the family which were deeply entrenched in Mexican customs and flavors, we visited that part of our heritage. We, as a family, dipped our toes in those waters but never really swam in them. That’s not to say we led a life where we weren’t loved by my mother’s relatives and included, we were just the odd three kids out. While my many cousins did things traditionally we generally kept to ourselves. All of this was done with the hope of my mother (and father) that we could escape the prejudice my cousins and their families often faced and we’d hear about during those family get togethers. And there were plenty of stories about how they were passed up for promotions at work, slighted for being a “beaner” at school, etc. The list went on and on. The sole exception to this upbringing – my sister did have a traditional Quinceañera. It was the lone cultural standout as we grew up, the one time we did something deeply traditional from my mother’s side of the family.
Yet, as a young boy, I grew to have this cultural schism forming within me. Something was growing inside that I constantly grappled with but couldn’t for the life of me put to voice (and by the third grade I had a college reading level comprehension under my belt so, words weren’t usually a problem for me). I lived in words. I knew they had power. Something I observed that added to that schism forming within was born out of how my cousins, aunts and uncles talked. They often blended Spanish and English in a way that hurt my ears. Literally, if I heard them talk too long I’d sneak away to where I could find someplace peaceful so I didn’t have to hear it.
We’d often go across the border to Tijuana (it was easy since we lived in a suburb of San Diego) and while I always liked looking and absorbing my Latino culture – especially the indigenous aspects, it never failed that by the time we left I was quiet, sullen and angry as we crossed back into the US. I hated that part of me, my heritage, was mired in filth, pandering to sell goods, with shabby looking shops and the kids I understood to be like me running up to sell us “chicle” (gum) in these little packages that were often as dirty as the kids who sold them. In essence, I grew up in despair of my Latino heritage. So I did everything I could to hide it from friends and acquaintances whenever I could. I purposely passed. So did my sister. It was just easier not to talk about it. Sometimes we’d get crap for it from other Latino kids who knew what we were. But generally we avoided them. We had to take Spanish in high school and struggled to master it while our Latino friends took the class as an easy A. It was a very frustrating time.
My brother, with his darker skin, couldn’t partake in passing. It made for a very screwed up childhood for him. He became bitter and often used humor in a passive-aggressive way to dig at people who slighted him.
My father’s family lived on the rez and we would take trips there and I grew up to love the culture but to me it was like visiting Disneyland. Even though rez life was hardly filled with proper middle class homes, my excursions to that side of the family kept me from wandering around too much so it had that theme park feel to it.
But still, I passed whenever I could. None of this is to say that my family life was horrid or emotionally damaging (on the surface) – I got along with everyone. I was well-liked, had many friends, and generally was happy growing up. The only stumbling block? Culture.
I don’t blame my parents for any of this. I understand that they were doing what they thought best so their children could succeed in whatever we wanted to do without the trouble of being perceived as less, as being other. My sister and I got away with it. My brother became more bitter – to the point now where he has a drinking problem that probably stems from this imbalance we had growing up. The biting humor he spewed in our teen years escalated and started to affect the friends we had. I used to become angry with him for it, now I understand it.
When I began to write stories, without question or pause, I created characters and worlds that were inherently all white. I did this without question. I never once stopped to ask myself, why not make him/her Mexican or African-American or Asian? No, I ran to white culture and mined my characters and their worlds from those Euro-centric nations. When I did include a Latina character in my current series (Angels of Mercy), she was the hired help – a cook. While many of my culture are in the service industry this was how I decided to include someone of my own culture: a side character that cooked for the affluent Italian family I’d created in Angels. Through one of my edits I stopped when I came to her character hitting the page and just sat there thinking to myself: WTBloodyF? I knew better. I thought I had grown up understanding the political and social economic constraints both sides of my family faced (on the rez for my dad’s side, and in Mexico on my mother’s). I went to college; I took world history. I got it. Or so I thought. Yet, there on the page was my own form of oppression and segregation. I became incensed with myself. I raged at my husband about how could I do such a thing.
His response? “You’re a writer, fix it. You know what to do. Do it.”
So I did. I added characters as the series grew to become more reflective of the world I grew up in which had a solid mix of friends across all cultural boundaries. But I gotta tell you, all of this led to one serious inner debate of what passing had afforded me and took from me. It was a solid round of mental ass whooping I gave myself. Even my own pen name – SA Collins – I took from a character in a book I’ve yet to publish because I thought it might be a cute gimmick to have the character in the book tell his own story. That grew to letting “him” tell all my stories. He’s a white character. Can I write under another nom de plume? Sure. Can he be Latinx? Absolutely. And I probably will. But watching this whole debate going on in the queer publishing world right now over persons of color being under represented I knew I had contributed to it unknowingly. I just let it happen because on some level I still wanted my works to pass.
Around the same time I started a podcast, The Wrote Podcast (check it out here), with two other authors. We discuss and celebrate authors who are trying to establish themselves in queer literary fiction (across all genres). From the beginning I did what I could to say in my own voice that I was an author of color (this was during that time when I’d discovered just how “white” Angels of Mercy had become). We often discuss things that aren’t easy topics. The purpose of the podcast is to allow an author in their own voice talk about their journey. I’ve learned so much from these discussions and these brilliant writers and content creators we’ve had on the show. I am hoping since this is the hot topic for the moment that we’ll get to discuss this topic with others. I even want to have these discussions with other non-PoC authors who are struggling with incorporating PoC characters within their works going forward. I want to encourage them to do so, to include us, front and center if the story will support it, so that over time we can dispel this underrepresentation that is going on.
One amazing thing I’ve learned from being queer? That it reaches across all cultures and races. I’ve learned to embrace them all. I welcome their voices in my head and heart. I’ve learned just how entrenched the concept of passing can have on a person of color. I lived it. I allowed it to thrive. I know better now. But even with the best of intentions, in this case by my parents, the consequences of cultural oppression and casting of PoCs as other cannot be underestimated or denied. It is a complex problem that has to be worked through. The tough discussions have to be made.
I’ve evolved and am doing my best to be better at it each time I consume or create media. I watch movies and TV shows told from a solid PoC point of view. I vote with my dollars for stories if I see they have PoC on the cover or in the blurb. I want to be the change I want to see in the world. I get excited when I come upon new works or new voices from that perspective. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up watching Euro-centric stories. I just pepper them in among the other stories I find myself enamored with. Not every author will “get it right” – do we ever despite how hard we try to research and ask for input? But I love when an author makes that choice. It’s a choice I’ve had to make, too.
I’d like to thank M.D. Neu for allowing me to post on his site. I highly recommend his current novel The Calling (check it out here and buy it here) as it is a ripping good read. Keep an ear out in April for his appearance on our podcast which promises to be a great conversation!
SA “Baz” Collins hails from the San Francisco Bay Area where he lives with his husband and their cat, Zorro. A classically trained singer/actor (under a different name), Baz knows a good yarn when he sees it.
Based on years of his work as an actor, Baz specializes in character study pieces. It is more important for him that the reader comes away with a greater understanding of the characters and the reasons they make the decisions they do, rather than the situations they are in. It is this deep dive into their manners, their experiences and how they process the world around them that make up the body of Mr. Collins' work.
Current Release - Angels of Mercy – Diary of a Quarterback Boxed Set (Part 1: King of Imperfections and Part 2: Prince of Mistakes)
A BOXED SET OF MARCO SFORZA'S PREQUEL SERIES TO ANGELS OF MERCY (also sold separately)
Diary of a Quarterback – Part One: King of Imperfections
Born in America but reared in their father’s home of Torino, Italy, Marco Sforza has led a fairly idyllic life. The Sforzas are an ancient and powerful family with a strong ducal past. They run a vast global empire that allows Marco to enter halls of power that most men only dream of. Yet, Marco is a boy who lives in a bubble of his family’s making.
When Marco returns to America to attend high school he grooms himself to become a rising star quarterback of the Mercy High Avenging Angels. He thinks his focus is his burgeoning football career. He is all to aware he is a boy made of pure light that is meant to be seen and noticed. He is comfortable there. Until he meets a boy who shines brighter than him. Elliot Donahey is that boy. But Elliot is a boy who craves shadow and darkness to keep himself safe through another hellish day of high school.
Before he realizes it, Marco’s world becomes undone by this boy. Trapped in a script all jocks are meant to follow, Marco does his best to fit in and play along so he can play the game he loves, but this boy who hides in the shadows begins to consume his every thought and emotion.
Despite the script he’s been given to date girls, have sex, and hang with his teammates and follow along, Marco finds himself on an emotional pendulum where following that jock script only brings him further away from that world to circle the boy hiding in the shadows. Can Marco find it within himself to push against what others expect of him to find his way into Elliot’s arms? Even with all the fame, money and prestige his family brings to the table, will it be enough to gain the interest of a boy who only wants to hide from everyone?
Diary of a Quarterback – Part Two: Prince of Mistakes
In Diary of a Quarterback – Part Two: Prince of Mistakes, Marco has decided to put all of the jock laden toys away. He knows what he wants: Elliot Donahey and nothing – not his family, not his friends or the townspeople of Mercy – will get in his way. But others are watching and taking notice and not liking what they see. Darkness begins to circle the boys as they find their way to each other.
Will Marco find happiness in the arms of Elliot? Or will those around them who seek to tear them apart stop Marco from finding true love? Set against the rugged coastline located just outside of Big Sur, these boys and their friends lead surprisingly dramatic lives. Mercy is a town full of secrets. Some of them have the ability to destroy lives. Will Marco and Elliot have the strength to find a way to happiness and true love? Or will a meddlesome cheerleader and Marco’s teammate, Beau, find a way to tear them apart?
Total Boxed Set Page Count: 1,322
SA Collins Webstore (click here) Special offer on SA Collins webstore only: Personalized autographed ebooks! See site for details.
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As well as other points of presence (iBooks, StreetLib, etc).