Thinking aloud …

Paper Knife has been getting a lot more traffic recently, so welcome to anyone who has started reading regularly in the last few days.

My main reading discussion project at present is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird – all of it, discussed in bite-size portions, or at any rate, one or two stories at a time. I’ve no idea how long that will take me, but at the rate of two or three posts a week, I imagine I’ll be finishing up in late January (or I may go mad over Christmas and write lots; we shall see).

However, Paper Knife isn’t just about weird fiction, or even the fantastic, or even genre fiction, so don’t be surprised if posts on other literary topics pop up from time to time.

Before moving on, however, I should mention that I’m not the only one undertaking a ‘Weird’ reading project. Des Lewis has a similar project on the go, with the latest instalment here.

I’ve just been reading a fascinating article that’s been doing the rounds in the genre blogosphere over the last week or so: If Tolkien were black, over at Salon. It focuses on the work of N.K. Jemisin and David Anthony Durham, and explores the relationship between African-American readers and writers and epic fantasy, on the assumption that epic fantasy is usually based on some version of medieval Britain, is inherently white in its assumptions, and very conservative in its general outlook.

It’s an interesting article. I’m familiar with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, and have The Kingdom of Gods on the review pile, awaiting my attention. So far, I’ve not read David Anthony Durham’s work, but from what have I read here, I’m already keen to do so. Among other things, Durham said something that caught my attention: ‘I never felt that fantasy needed to be an escape from reality. […] I wanted it to be a different sort of engagement with reality, and one that benefits from having magic and mayhem in it as well.’

It has set me thinking once again about how one reads fantasy. Durham’s Acacia trilogy has, he says, ‘a little bit of the Atlantic slave trade in there, and there’s a bit of the Opium Wars and quite a bit of Halliburton.’ The point is that fantasy is a way to write about these issues without readers automatically applying what Durham calls ‘particular agendas and political orientations’. This makes sense to me, given I see part of the role of fiction being to prompt us to look at things in a different light. And yes, that can go hand in glove with entertainment. Why not? I can’t speak for anyone else but I feel as though my life is one long experience of being bombarded by thoughts and ideas – the change can come at any point, from any source.

What made me uneasy, though, was one of the comments at the end of the piece, from ninaloca, who appears to be a habitual reader of fantasy, and also aware that a lot of genre fantasy used well-worn pattern types, some of which she has now chosen to reject. She was obviously open to the idea of doing something different with fantasy but at the same time, she could say this:

I accept that as a westerner I’m simply going to love certain things. I love Christmas trees and the romance of dark cold snowy Germanic forests. I love fairy tales about witches in woods and Snow Queens and trolls. We are surrounded by this (in the western world) from birth. If we want to change the fantasy genre it has to start way way earlier, by the time we get to Fantasy we’ve already spent our entire childhood with fairytales and folklore and European royal history and Fantasy As Written now just fits the contours of our imagination. Writing about brown people in Africa isn’t going to touch that child inside of us and bring back memories of our childhood when we could escape totally into that fantasy cocoon in our heads.

I can see what she is saying, to the extent that these are the cultural cues to which we are exposed from an early age, but she seems also to suggest that there is nothing we really can do to resist or counteract this, as though we’re almost hardwired, as white northern europeans to like such stuff, and are unable to escape our own programming as a result.

I find this difficult to believe. Yes, I can see that people will remain within their comfort zones, and ninaloca does express this quite clearly, but remaining with what is familiar, choosing to do so, is not the same as being obliged by conditioning to do so, surely. The clue, perhaps, likes in the reference to childhood and the fantasy cocoon, and the implication that reading is about an escape from reality. Or it might be defensiveness – I like this stuff and want to carry on reading it. Which is fine, too; it is just not the choice I’ve made, , which is why David Anthony Durham’s approach is much more to my liking.

Other commenters mounted a defence of Tolkien’s work, particularly suggestions of racism, but I was left with the distinct impression that they weren’t always getting the point that Jemisin in particular was trying to make, and indeed that ninaloca perhaps inadvertently underlined, of what it is like when you love a novel but can’t see yourself in it, no matter how hard you try. Growing up in the 1960s, the best I could do in terms of an adventurous girl role-model, was George in Blyton’s Famous Five books, and I knew even as a child that she was by no means the positive figure one might suppose; the pervasive tone of indulgence towards her from adults signalled that they hoped she would grow out of it, and I still think Blyton herself laughed at George as much as she sympathised with her. But at least George looked a bit like me.

Later, I mentally ‘wrote’ myself into Lord of the Rings as an invisible Ranger travelling with the Fellowship, because that was clearly a far more interesting option than sitting around being Arwen, or even, alas, Eowyn. Strangely, I did not feel compelled to write myself into the text as an orc, who were, after all, nasty, brutish and short, and it was all too easy to accept Tolkien’s representations of others. I doubt that Tolkien was a paid-up racist – he was in many ways a very humane man – but neither did he question established representations of geographical groups and so on. He was working within a set of literary and social frameworks that made perfect sense to him, and I doubt it would have occurred to him to step beyond them, though as the distance lengthens between our time and Tolkien’s, it is not always easy to understand or explain them. (A prime example, to my mind, is the relationship between Frodo and Sam; however we choose to gloss that in terms of suppressed homoeroticism, for me it helps to know a little about the scout system in Oxford colleges, and the kind of relationship that forms between scout and student, akin to that of a child and nanny.)

Jemisin’s commentary on reading epic fantasy and trying to write it the way other people did before defying its tropes altogether is genuinely eye-opening. One of the things I particularly admire about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is its sharp eye for the nuances of power relations, although in terms of storytelling, I actually think The Broken Kingdom is a stronger and richer novel, overflowing with people, gods and beliefs. It’s an excellent evocation of what it might be like to come to a big city and attempt to make a life there. Jemisin questions what Tolkien simply accepted. That doesn’t diminish Tolkien or valorise Jemisin, but it makes their work different from one another, and indeed makes me reread Tolkien differently, refreshing my mind as I go.

Both writers also talk about the problems of being people of colour who are writers, and the assumptions made by readers and booksellers, not to mention the expectations they have of Durham and Jemisin as writers, Nora Jemisin picks this up in a subsequent post on her own website, the ‘things I wish I’d said’ post, which really should be read as well.

I’m thinking a lot about ways of reading at present. The Weird Reading Project provides a lot to think about in terms of European writing I’ve missed, while Jemisin and Durham are reawakening my enthusiasm for other varieties of fantastical writing. I’m hoping to revisit these themes a good deal in the next few months.

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