The OF Blog: There Are Other Worlds

Sunday, February 26, 2006

There Are Other Worlds

Chances are, most of the people reading this article will have pale skin. A great many will speak English as their first language or will have been taught the language from middle childhood. Perhaps a bare majority or a large plurality will have grown up hearing of this thing called 'the American Dream.' Possibly, those reading this will never have experienced abject poverty, living their lives in a comfortable bourgeois setting. Likely, these elements will make for a common experience among those who read this blog, those who purchase and read 'fantasy' novels, those who participate in forums devoted to such literature on the web.

But not everyone falls in that category. Quiza, hable usted español. Si yo hubiera escrito éste artículo sobre el imperialismo de los 'gringos' o 'yanquis' y como autores como Gabriel García Márquez o Alejo Carpentier escribieron cuentos utilizando ese condición malo para contar cuentos de la esperanza y la desesperación, algunos no aceptarían que estos cuentos puedan ser fantasías. After all, for some, 'fantasies' must follow certain conventions and preferably exist somewhere safe away, protected against the intrusions of our world. A great many people with whom I've conversed over the years at wotmania and elsewhere have expressed this desire for their 'fantasies' to be separate from real-world concerns, concerns such as racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, the inequal distribution of resources, or how we humans appear to conceive the world.

The genesis of this article comes from reading last month an essay by Pam Noles titled appropriately enough as "Shame." Her article exposes a raw nerve for a great many readers of speculative fiction - that of the 'other.' In this case, it is the 'other' reader, the reader who is not White, the reader who is not male, the reader who is not Anglo or who comes from the bourgeois background into which a great many of us have been privileged to have been born. Her story is that of the quest many have to find characters that they can relate to in the readily-available fictions that many of us pass around and recommend to the people around us.

Noles quotes Ursula Le Guin and her reaction to the casting of a virtually all-White cast for the TV adaptation of Earthsea:

"I think it is possible that a good many readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, maybe don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."
— Commentary on Slate, Dec. 16, 2004.
I will let that comment sink in for a bit.

There is a lot of truth to that comment, a truth, which like so many goes quietly in us and through us without leaving much of a trace. Many of us have a common world-view, a conceptualization of matters in such a way that revolves around the experiences that members of that particular society will share in common. However, this often leads to a sense of cultural myopia, the failure to conceptualize in its entirety the experiences that other groups will have. For example, taking the García Márquez example I cited above, why can't there be an intimate connection between the imagination and the 'real' world? Why cannot there be fantasies that tie in our hopes, our despairs, our dreams in such a fashion as to be both stories of imagination and of how we relate to this world around us?

Of course, a great many authors already do this, both within and outside the Anglo-American tradition. But yet the perception of what constitutes a 'fantasy' seems to revolve in the popular consciousness of this Anglo-American tradition almost solely around the twin axes of Tolkienian secondary-world stories and mythological tales of faires and sprites and other creatures drawn from Western fairytales and legends (and I'll hold off here talking about legenda). But what about those other stories, stories in which there is not that comfortable divide between the 'real' and the 'imagined'? How does one classify a story such as Ben Okri's The Famished Road? As a fable, as 'magic realism,' or as something else?

I suppose for some, if a boy is seeing 'spirits', it must be a 'fantasy,' but how is that to be received by the reader? After all, The Famished Road is a tale that touches upon the very real miseries of life for a great many in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world. It is not a 'safe' story to read, as the reader will encounter a great many examples of unfairness and cruelty in the guise of characters such as the nameless Landlord or the political parties that seek to manipulate and to terrorize the villagers. In a sense, it is very 'real' and therefore likely will be rejected by some readers for that aspect, just as others will likely reject it for having 'spirits' and other creatures of dubious origin. It is their choice, I suppose.

And now, back to the Le Guin quote. I might take a lot of heat for this, but as Kurt Vonnegut said in Slaughterhouse-Five, so it goes. I think Le Guin has put her finger on a very interesting point, not just about the characters to be found within the story, but also on the readers interacting with the story. The world in which we live is not a whitebread one; differences often go much more than skin-deep. It is a naïve presumption to make that people can blend together into one 'colorblind' society. After all, whose vision of that society would triumph? Are our visions of the future really any different from the days of Kipling writing about the "White Man's Burden"? It is an open-ended and debatable question. But I will close by saying just this one little thing:

There are other worlds than this.

I hope to discover and to appreciate some of them for what they are and how they can influence me.


Jay Tomio said...

I'm going to ponder this for a moment, I read the Noles article last week and the reactions had already been widely popping up then, and I haven't had the time for a proper commentary or even if I wanted to comment.

Glad you enjoyed Okri!

Chromwell said...

Just wanted to make a brief comment on your interesting and provocative blog. The speculative fiction most of us read is definitely of the white, male, Anglo variety. I happen to enjoy reading this type since I read speculative fiction for enjoyment rather than edification. I would like you to push you on the difference between “race” and culture (or are they the same?). While it is likely that different races often coincide with different cultures, I think it is the different cultures that are of primary concern. For example, I suspect a middle-class African American is much more likely to hold similar cultural values to white Americans, then an impoverished black Muslim in the Sudan. Likewise, an Asian American woman who was adopted by a white family as a baby is likely to have a different cultural perspective then a recently naturalized Asian woman though both are American. I think you main points are generally valid but I would like to see you clarify this distinction more. The question then becomes: Which cultures’ vision of society would triumph? Speculative fiction can further the debate in interesting ways by asking, "Which cultures' vision should triumph?" That is, of course, assuming you reject cultural relativism, which it appears you do.

Neth said...

This upper-middle class, white, American male found your blog rather interesting.

It seems you've decided to talk about two 'seperate' issues here; blending them into one. I'll seperate them back out, and leave the racial/cultural issues to others.

Classification of fantasy seems to fall victim to the human need to carve out a territory - draw a line. The human mind works by categorizing things into bins, which can basically be thought of as drawing lines. There is an innate need to seperate things into distinct categories. 'Fantasy' gets the traditional epic fantasy categorization due to the typical first experience with fantasy - often a Tolkienesque series. Other early experiences with 'fantasy' often have their own labels - horror, fairy tale, sci-fi, daydream, etc.

People simply tend to not move beyond this process of creating bins of distinct categories. While fantasy is a branching spectrum that ranges through many sub-genres and from pulp to incredible literature, people tend to dismiss this and revert to the comfortable categorization.

A reinforcement of this categorization are the motivations of the reader. Many read for pure escapism and don't want the issues they see and deal every day to be present - they want to escape these into an ideal of some sort. This is very valid motivation, and one I often have. Other readers seek to learn and grow through what they read, and they seek out 'fantasies' that reflect to varying degrees our own world. As, you point out, reflections can dim or so like our own 'real' world that they aren't truly reflections at all. And the reality is that most readers fall between the two extremes on either end.

Mad Cow Bomber said...

I'm not as literarily accomplished or knowledgeable as some of the other folks that hang around here; I just read and evaluate based on what I know.

One might speculate that the race and background of most characters is due to that of their creators. That is, George RR Martin, being knowledgeable about Europe in the Middle Ages, is not terribly likely to create a world that resembles Bronze Age Africa. More specifically, most (white male) authors - of which there are more than a few -are more likely to create worlds based on societies and cultures they already know or are familiar with, rather than creating ones that are completely foreign in every way to them and to the readers. Granted, there are a few exceptions - Erikson comes foremost in my mind - after all, aren't Kalam and Quick Ben black? (I'd say African-American, but neither of those apply.) Many of the other human characters - especially in the Seven Cities area, would be considered (as far as I can tell) Middle Eastern. Let’s not even speculate on the blue-skinned Napans. One might also speculate that the reason Erikson is able to get so far from his own culture is because of his anthropological/archaeological background, a luxury most other writers don't have.

That said, there's a perhaps greater difference to explore than simply skin color. In my reading (admittedly almost exclusively epic fantasy and some magical realism), none of the writers have been able to transcend their own worldviews and societal values. For example, Western (certainly American) culture tends to elevate the individual above the group (be it family, village, city, etc.). Individual freedom is highly valued, and our culture reflects that. Don’t we tell kids to just “be themselves”? Yet across the rest of the globe, that philosophy is alien - it’s the family, the village, the company, the corporate that matters, not the individual. So there’s no such thing as a messianic farm boy seeking his way in the world, because he never would have left the farm in the first place. So if you want to truly create characters and worlds from a non-white, non-Western perspective, don’t just make up a society and slap brown paint on everyone’s skin. Challenge yourself to learn about some of the Asian or Middle Eastern cultures and values, and model your world after that.

Patrick said...

Hey Larry,

Once again a very interesting and thought-provoking article.:-)

Keep up the good work!

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