Searching for Beauty

I don’t usually write this kind of post. No two lives are the same, and my aim is not to make generalities. This is my experience of the world growing up in North America.

I am not an immigrant, but my parents are. They met on a blind date in Canada, fell in love here, had me, and then later my brother. Today I live 10 blocks from the hospital I was born in. I am not bi-racial. Both my parents are from the Philippines, but from provinces that speak different dialects, one of which I can understand, the other I can’t.

I was born with a common Spanish name. There are more than 2 million other people (if I trust Google) with the same name. Sometimes I get weird looks from people that wonder why this Chinese looking woman has such a name, but that’s another story, one about colonization and conquest. I don’t know the whole story. I do know that one of my great grandfathers did not want to pass on his name, out of fear, and beyond that, all the records were lost in war. I’ll probably never know the whole story. The history of the world is bloody and confusing. That’s why I don’t look Filipino, though both my parents are.

When I was growing up, I grew up on all the same books as every other kid here. Cinderella, Snow White, Beatrix Potter, then later Charlotte’s Web and The Chronicles of Narnia. My most prized possession was a book of fairy tales. I liked the stories with knights and dragons. I reread the story of Aladdin and his lamp, and Gulliver’s travels, and Robin Hood, and the seven labors of Hercules over and over again. Those were my favorites.

Eventually I read a wonderful book “The Singing Stone” by O.R. Melling, and I fell head over heels in love with Fantasy. It was a story about a girl dropped into mythological Celtic history, where she discovered who her parents were, and her past. I love the book, I still have it on my shelf now.

The only disappointment? Celtic history had nothing to do with me. I wished it did. I wished I was an orphan, and that my parents were really kings and queens (Sorry mom and dad hehe).

At the very least, I wanted to find some mythology I could call my own, so I asked my mom what kind of stories she grew up. My Mom’s reply was that the maids used to tell her stories about princesses and princes. All those other stories, mostly lost.  Colonization you see… it goes back a long ways.

So I kept reading just the same as everyone else. Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, the Babysitters Club, at the same time as I discovered epic fantasy, and devouring David Eddings, and Robert Jordan, Dragonlance, then  Tolkien.

Things changed, of course, when I was in high school. I loved these imagined worlds. I used to idly daydream about being transported to those magical worlds, but that the next best thing would be to work on a movie set, get dressed up in costume, just as an extra, and wander around (LOTR? I still think that would have been awesome).

But that was when I started noticing things I’d taken for granted. I realized that most of the women that the men pined after in the stories were either buxom red heads, cool blonds, or girl next door brunettes. In the odd occasion that there was a raven haired girl involved, her skin was always pale and perfect, or at most, a Mediterranean olive.

As a teen I started wishing I was blond, paler (I also wished I was a duck when I was 5), and that I could at least dream of the hero pining after someone like me, but I could not. I couldn’t even be an extra on the set if I wanted to. LOTR? I’d probably only fit in wearing orc makeup. These worlds did not allow for anyone like me to exist.

So the first time a boy told me I was beautiful, I didn’t believe him. I just thought he was desperate.

The heroes only wanted the blonds, the brunettes, the pale skinned princesses. How could I be beautiful?

I still sometimes daydream, but more often than not, I get to the the part where I imagine I’m an extra on a movie set, and my daydreams crumble away. How’s that for taking the fantasy out of fantasy?

I just hope this makes you writers stop and think. You may think that you’re writing your novels just for entertainment, and yes! I hope you are! but consciously nor not, you’re teaching the world about what you value and what you call beautiful. What you leave out shows just as much as what you leave in.

Words have power. The stories we tell matter. Books matter. Your writing matters.

I’m not bitter, or even sad. I’m happier and more confident than I’ve ever been in my life, but some days I still wonder if I am beautiful.

27 Comments to “Searching for Beauty”

  1. Wow, that was really from the heart. Hard things to have to say, but there’s truth in it, too.

    Of course, it makes me second-guess the idea of setting a fantasy tale in a pseudo-European setting. I do love me a pseudo-European setting, but it’s hard to rationalize the “princess” of such a tale being a non-European.

    Which, I think, doesn’t mean that I can’t or shouldn’t write a story in a pseudo-European setting… but that I shouldn’t limit my tales to such a setting. I’ve tried not to… (though I must admit that my Grand Epic, ie. “Project SOA #1”, begins in just such a place). But it would probably be a good idea for more of us writers to incorporate both more diverse settings and more diverse characters into our tales.

    Because ultimately you’re very right, both (a) that there is a great wealth and diversity of beauty (both in the physical terms you suggest here as well as in other terms) in our world and (b) implicitly that it’s important for our fiction to examine and embrace that wealth of diversity.

    FWIW… I imagine that my Book of M, such as it is, will probably take place in a more diversified setting…

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Mind you, I love mythology from around the world, and have a fondness of Arthurian stories & knights and castles. My only caution is is that writers world build too small. If it’s a complete world, just look how many languages, and cultures, and people are in this one.

      Perhaps the main action happens in one part of it, and yes, those princesses and princess may be pale skinned… but there’s nothing stopping merchants in the docks from elsewhere, or implying that there are other countries beyond that have people that aren’t the same. I’d just like to see worlds big enough for other cultures to exist. Heck, I’d be glad to imagine being an extra swabbing the deck… because then maybe I could daydream about stepping off that ship…

      Even a hero just admiring a girl who doesn’t fit the norm, calling them beautiful, before going off rescue the princess, would do a world of good in my mind. Even a little gesture like that would go a long way to reinforce that beauty comes in all forms.

      1. From that perspective, then, I feel at least a little vindicated. Although Project SOA #1 takes place primarily within the aforementioned pseudo-European setting… I’ve world-built the world to be very large… and have always intended for my hero to to interact with people from across a more realistic, diverse world, and to visit those diverse lands. And, likewise, for the story to include many heroes and villains and other characters (besides the main protag) from across those lands as well.

        (In some respects… that’s part of the weakness of Project SOA as a whole… because it’s so big that it’s perhaps improbable that I can successfully tell a tale that big without it becoming a very cliched, trite travel-logue mess of a tale. Which is why I’ve set it aside for now; I intend to try to tell it, but I think I’ll need more skill to do so gracefully.)

      2. T.S. Bazelli Author

        That sounds like a challenge, and yes it would take a lot of skill. Glad to see you’re at least thinking of it!

        “Because ultimately you’re very right, both (a) that there is a great wealth and diversity of beauty (both in the physical terms you suggest here as well as in other terms) in our world and (b) implicitly that it’s important for our fiction to examine and embrace that wealth of diversity.” YES!!!

        But an aside, there are of course non-European princes & princesses in both the present day, and history. Really don’t see much of this reflected in fantasy much either.

  2. Wow… What a fantastic post.

    I’m sorry you didn’t believe that boy (because you ARE beautiful!) but I can understand it too. When I was a little girl, I used to want to grow up to be a tall, green-eyed blonde named Jennifer. I didn’t know that’s not how it works. 😛

    And I do try to keep that in mind when I’m writing, although I also try not to let it be my focus.

    Btw, great line: “The history of the world is bloody and confusing.”

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Jennifer? I couldn’t imagine you as a Jennifer! Hehe the name Kristan seems to fit you well.

      And thank you. I just keep wondering what my kids will grow up thinking one day. I just hope that by the time they’re old enough to understand, there will be enough diversity in fiction that they won’t feel excluded. It’ll just feel normal, as it should 🙂

      1. Hehe, thanks. I love my name now.

        I feel the same way (that it should be normal, and that my kids will hopefully get to experience that). I think we get closer to that with every generation. 🙂

  3. One of the more frank and personal essays I’ve read anywhere on the net in quite some time. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    I don’t think humbling our fantasies a little is bad. I’m fine with working the hotel check-in desk with an elf, and a cyclops for a doorman. To keep our fantasies, perhaps above the level of being an extra on a set (though I have daydreamed about being an extra orc in a movie, and dancing every time the camera goes off me to mess with the fellow evil hordes).

    I’m curious what you think of (and if you’ll do a post about) purposefully blank character descriptions. It’s my belief that most people make up most character appearances in their heads. If those go unchallenged explicitly or by going against a social norm, you keep thinking of the protagonist as black, or Mediterranean, or whatever. Not that this makes up for a lack of diversity in fiction.

    1. Ahh yes the blank character description. I remember reading LeGuin’s Earthsea, and almost feeling a physical smack in the face when I realized that Ged was brown. Up till that point in the book, I’d just imagined him being like any other Caucasian fantasy hero, because I’d never read about anything else. It was a shock to realize how unconscious those expectations were. I didn’t even think about it, or question my assumptions until that moment.

      I’ve heard other people say the same. Most of us have been conditioned to expecting Caucasian characters as the default. That’s the danger of the leaving out race and color. Personally I don’t think it really adds to diversity.

      1. That’s interesting, understandable and quite depressing. It certainly wouldn’t add to diversity – if people project one race, then the blank-race book becomes homogeneous by default. What I was curious about is what races and features people projected. The case of perspectives and projection have been on my mind lately because most of the characters n the novel I’m writing aren’t Caucasian. Most of them aren’t human, but those that are have naming conventions that would suggest a dominant non-Caucasian ethnicity. Not that any dominant ethnicity adds to textual diversity, only diversity in a canon.

        It’s also on my mind because I’m uncertain of how much to describe the people. My inclination is usually to go minimalist, especially on common major details. If you’re in a majority, you very seldom think specifically about the traits of the majority in those around you. How to handle that without pandering or using the easy outs (unusually beautiful, ugly, etc. amongst the majority) is something I’m still considering.

        And since I forgot to say this in the first comment – I’ve only seen one picture of you, but in that you look absolutely beautiful.

      2. That’s a tough one, and I’ve got the same problem as you. I’m not really sure how to handle it. Naming is a good hint, but probably not enough. Hmm there’s usually still amount of variation in the majority. You could perhaps note the things that make certain individuals stand out… a birthmark, a strong jawline, contrasting those features to the norm? “People say my blue skin is beautiful, the shade of the sky just after dark, but I’d never seen anyone like him. He was midnight, pools of dark water. No one ever glanced at me if he was in the room.” Just making something up. Not sure if that helps at all.

        And, thank you 🙂

      3. My problem is compounded by my extra-human cast. An example: the last scene I wrote is between a human and a sentient ball of snakes that speaks through one larger head and uses the others like limbs. Describing the guy’s freckles would be ridiculous when you’ve got that ball of snakes there. The perspective is third person intimate on the human; he’s not going to think about his own appearance much, and the serpentine creature is far more interesting and outlandish both to him and the audience.

        Beyond that, I sincerely don’t want to rely on tropes like a character who is unusually beautiful, hideously scarred, or so-on. In particular, I just can’t stand the beautiful people that populate so much Fantasy – I’m an ugly dude and prefer some normal-to-decent-looking people in my fiction. My best bet to do something less stilted might be in contrasting some of the human-like creatures. Reflecting on it the way you’ve made me do here, I think I have two openings to broach typical racial characteristics already in the book. I didn’t notice either before now. I’ll have to examine them.

        Watch now as the book becomes entirely populated by exotic hotties.

      4. LOL I’d really rather know more about the ball of snakes than the human! That being said, there’s no reason the human character has to be described up front, but details could be revealed gradually, and only when appropriate.

        You know, I’ve actually challenged myself in my wip to never use the words ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘ugly’ they’re all qualifications that are really useless for painting a picture of someone in fiction.

        But well… you can’t stop your readers from imagining exotic hotties no matter what’s in your head LOL. Damn, now if I ever read that story, you can bet what I’ll be thinking.

      5. “And since I forgot to say this in the first comment – I’ve only seen one picture of you, but in that you look absolutely beautiful.”

        As a married man, I’m not permitted to comment on the relative merits of other women’s physical characteristics… (Well… maybe “not permitted” isn’t entirely correct, but I wouldn’t feel entirely comfortable with it.) That said, were that not the case, based only the avatar pic, I would be inclined to agree with this statement.

        On the other hand, of far more interest to me here is the writing, and I can comment quite freely in saying that your writing, Mrs. Bazelli, is very much beautiful, and inasmuch as that’s a reflection of who you really are… well… Quod Est Demonstrandum, as they say.

      6. The compliments are unexpected, and I’m an extra shade of pink right now.

        I can’t really say anything but thank you, and that I truly appreciate it. You’ve all got me smiling.

  4. Thank you sharing such an intimate and eloquently conveyed piece of autobiography!

    That was certainly of interest to me in that I do come from that British, Celtic background – I’ve lived almost all of my life in Scotland and both my parents are British. We have castles here, proper ancient castles and hills and rivers that carry ancient myths and legends and they’re all just there within touching distance. You can just go out and place your hands on those stones and walk those paths, and feel all the stories that relate to them – both real and imagined. I can drive just a few hours north and the scenery starts to resemble Middle-Earth or a few hours south and you’ve got places like Sherwood and Glastonbury.

    I’m aware that I might sound as if I’m gloating now – I’m really not, I’m just patriotic. Cut me and I’ll bleed tartan. (:

    I find North America an appealing oddity in that, relatively speaking, it’s a new place. There hasn’t been enough time for all that ancient history to slowly get jumbled and regurgitated into folklore. Instead you’ve a thousand other mythologies brought from a thousand other lands all weaving into this strange new fabric and somehow that’s even more exciting than just knowing “I’m British therefore I’ve got druids, pixies, knights of the round table”. I like to think that if were to find myself settled in a place without existing folklore (for example when I’m going to be one of the first pioneers of Mars) that I’d quite quickly starting making my own stories and legends.

    On a similar note – I strongly recommend Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”. It’s about all the deities brought to America by settlers from across the world.

    And regarding your final note – yes, I am very aware of the power of words. Both as a reader and writer. A running theme throughout my novel is about the wonder of technology and how it can change the world but there’s also subtle stuff about how much I love Scotland and at point I realised I was actually writing about my relationship with my father which hadn’t been intentional!

    Anyway thanks again for such a lovely piece Mrs Bazelli.

    1. You’re welcome David! You know, I fully intend to make it to Scotland some day in the future, to experience a bit of what you mentioned above, as well as the present culture, which is every bit as interesting to me.

      North America is an odd place. The only things that have existed as long as castles are the trees. I love walking out in the forest and imagining what went on there, what sights those old trees might have seen. Yes there are the mythologies and legends that the immigrants have brought with them, and the native americans had here before all of us, but a lot of that is being lost or forgotten for many different reasons.

      I loved American Gods. Wonderful book. It is set in this world so it was able to plug into that wealth of culture and peoples. I wish there were more books that tried to do that. It also passes the movie extra test LOL because well, it’s set here, and I’m already here…

  5. I might be Caucasian, but I’ve always felt more like the Ugly Duckling than Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. That’s why I don’t describe physical beauty anymore. I have very few physical descriptions of my characters, to allow the reader to imagine them as s/he wishes…

  6. Wonderful story. I totally identify as an openly gay Mexican-American. Not many stories about openly gay latino princes falling love, is there?

    But that’s another reason I write, to tell the story of my community, my culture, my history, my heritage, etc. To have some brown people in fantasy stories for once! And to show people that there is not only European Mythology, but there is also American mythology {as in the american continent, indigenous… etc.} and so I am right on board with you.

    You’re FILIPINA! No wonder I love you! Half of my friends are Filipinos. I often get mistaken for Filipino, LOL. I took a course on Filipino-American culture in college, and it was very eye-opening, there is so many parallels with the Mexican-American community.

    Well, I haven’t seen a full front picture of you, but I doubt your are not beautiful. Just between you and me: I think European standards of beauty are over-rated. I don’t know what’s the big deal about blondes.

    My definition of sexy and beauty is when someone is confident and unforgiving in who they are. Now THAT’S sexy. And from what you write, I can tell that that is the kind of personality you have–AND THAT’S SEXY AND BEAUTIFUL.

    I’ve even been thinking of saying: “Your spirit looks beautiful today” instead of saying “You look beautiful today.” Because outer appearances can’t be controlled, and often times they are misleading. So why don’t we measure beauty be the beauty of your spirit and that inner strength?

    What do you think?

    Anyways, thanks for you honest and thoughtful words. I think all people of color go through that issue of feeling they are ugly because they don’t look European enough.

    Friggin’ historical and institutional racism. Ah well.

    1. I love your definition of sexy and beautiful because it implies strength. I wish more people would believe the same. I know most minorities feel the same insecurity at some point in their lives.

      I’m hopeful though. Some fantasy novels with non-white protagonists have doing very well, like these. I also recently read this book with a strong gay (albeit albino) hero. Perhaps things are slowly changing 🙂

      Thank you Ollin!

  7. This twisted from where I thought you were going at the beginning. It is a message that is important. Many things will be taken from the works that are written. I think to my mind too much fantasy and science fiction assumes the world is English speaking. I like some things about the mythology that I grew up within, but I want to tell tales about other myths.

      1. I hope to. This nicely meshes into Stephen’s post about writing what you know. I don’t necessarily know all of these worlds. I try to write honestly and although I don’t know a particular world hope that my attempt to paint it in different ways will capture the sense of wonder I have about these other worlds. [Of my two novel ideas, one is set in a futuristic China and the other is set in a fantastical variant of Sudan].

  8. Theresa, this is such a beautiful post. I came across your blog as I skimmed through a series of other writing blogs. There’s something about the way you write that made me stop and read more.

    I love exploring how both our identity and the outside world affect us. Thank you for your honesty and for inspiring me to reflect more on how influential writers can be and on what it means to be a writer.

    As for your heritage, I can completely identify. No one believes me when I tell them that I was born in the Philippines!

    I’m a fan and subscriber, looking forward to reading more. =)

    1. Welcome to the blog Samantha! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. The world is complicated, but wonderful in that same vein. I’ve checked out your blog, and am looking forward to reading more about your time in Peru. 🙂

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