Samuel R. Delany and Literate Fantasy

For some reason, unlike science fiction, fantasy (especially high fantasy) is treated like it’s always escapist nonsense without any possibility of having substance. To most people, sword-and-sorcery fantasy will never have depth, and it most certainly will never be literary. Even when fantasy sweeps the nation (see: Game of Thrones fever), it’s because the books are enjoyable, not because they say very much about anything.

Being someone who loves sword-and-sorcery fantasy, “serious” literature, and social justice, the role of high fantasy in literature and in life is sometimes a sticky one. Yes, the majority of fantasy is escapist nonsense that, if it says anything, uses its voice to reinforce the sexist and racist norms of our society. However, that isn’t something inherent in the fantasy genre or in genre writing. You’d certainly have a case for arguing that much of literature, regardless of genre, reinforces all the bad things in inequitable societies like ours.

But for whatever reason, fantasy gets to bear the brunt of this injustice. Perhaps it’s because the covers of books, even ones with interesting things to say, ones you might even be tempted to call literary, often look like this:

I personally find nothing wrong with this cover, but I can understand why an ordinary person might pick this book up and think they know what they’ll find inside. Actually, they have no idea.

The plot synopsis probably doesn’t help: “For Pryn, a young girl fleeing her village on the back of a dragon, Neveryona becomes a shining symbol just out of reach. It leads her to the exotic port city of Kolhari, where she talks with the wealthy merchant Madame Keyne, walks with Gorgik the Liberator as he schemes against the Court of Eagles, and crosses the Bridge of Lost Desire in search of her destiny.” As interesting as I find it, others might read it and just think, oh just another book about dragons and destinies.

Of course, I didn’t choose this book randomly. Samuel R. Delany has a reputation for being one of the more literary-minded fantasy (and science fiction) writers, and for good reason.

Neveryona‘s chapters begin with excerpts from the likes of Susan Sontag, Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Johnson (all women, as well as dense thinkers, which I think is important to note). If so inclined, you could very easily write a postcolonial analysis of the novel, particularly since the novel spends a lot of time deconstructing the real meanings of civilization and barbarism.

For example, Delany presents the now fairly well known idea that nature is an idea constructed by civilization. At one point, a character (Gorgik the Liberator) notes, “except some of the more primitive shore tribes along those bournes where civilization has not yet inserted its illusory separation of humans from the world which holds them.” This statement is a postcolonial goldmine. Not only does it include the civilized/barbarous dichotomy, but it clearly is nudging at the certainties civilization has invented and imposed on the world. This apparent knowledge is described as “illusory,” or deceptive. Civilization does not know everything it thinks it knows.

Pryn, the main character, is often confused about where the divisions between country, suburb, and city lie. This, for the sake of the story, is because she is new to the area. However, the subtext deals with not only the physical boundaries between the civilized and the barbarous, but also the ways in which it is difficult to tell which is which, without civilization there to explain it to you.

The novel begins with an interesting incident regarding language, one that I think is significant to consider in the context of the definition of civilization. Pryn writes her name in the dirt, but writes it “pryn,” “because she knew something of writing but not of capital letters.” It is important to note that she is a girl of the rural mountains, not of the city. It takes a woman who has traveled to “civilization” to teach her about capitalizing the first letters of names. Civilization bestows this knowledge onto barbarians, who are expected to learn civilization’s ways.

Although she is not from the city, Pryn is also not a “barbarian” as such. There are specific people who are known to be barbarians, namely the tribes to the south. Thankfully, these tribes seem to be white. (I say thankfully, because I’m tired of desert “barbarians” being represented by brown people. Of course, Delany being black himself, it would be strange for such an otherwise self-aware writer to lapse into racism.) These tribes are apparently nomadic, do “barbaric” things like weave copper wire into their ears, and talk with funny accents. I’m interested in whether or not the geographic position of the barbarians was intended to signal back to modern-day America. After all, the Northeast defines its own civility by the perceived barbarity of the Southeast. In both cases, the South is the Other by which civilization defines itself.

I’m also interested in what role sexuality plays in the novel. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually finished the novel yet.) From what I’ve read about Delany, he has been known to write frankly about sexuality, calling some of his work or parts of his work pornography. Because it’s very clear Delany is a thoughtful writer, I would like to compare this work with the sorts of misogynistic sex scenes of other writers, and figure out what (if anything) makes Delany’s empowering or equitable. I’m also interested in looking at how Delany’s own sexuality (he’s gay) may or may not have influenced his writing of sexuality. I’m hoping that Neveryona delivers in that respect, because otherwise the Bridge of Lost Desire is a bit of a tease.

I also hope to see whether or not race plays a larger role in the deconstructing of civilization and barbarism. So far, Delany seems to be unpacking a general definition of the two loaded terms, but not approaching the racial definitions. There are plenty of people in Kolhari with undisclosed ethnicities, as well as people described as pale or darker, so it’s hard for me to tell right now if he will approach race directly or not.

I can’t imagine that the rest of the novel will disappoint me, however, because not only is the worldbuilding wonderful, but the novel features a well-drawn, dragon-riding, 15-year-old girl protagonist, and I have no gender-related complaints about the characters. Don’t be too surprised if I follow up this post with a more in-depth analysis of the novel.

For now, though, I am confident enough to say that, while Neveryona would probably be enjoyable for your average fantasy reader, it is also a rewarding experience for more academic or literary-minded people. The subtext is rich and thought-provoking, and it lends itself to various kinds of analysis, not just postcolonial. While many people may still deride swords-and-sorcery fantasy for being fluff, Delany’s work makes it clear that fantasy can be so much more than people think.

-Joanna

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Repost: End of Gender- Not Your Mother’s Storybooks

Malic White, Submitted by Malic White on April 13, 2012 – 11:25am; tagged books, children, transgender. Originally posted on bitchmedia.net

The cover of Be Who You Are depicts a "boy" looking in the mirror at herself as a girl.

In 2008, Marcus Ewert’s storybook, 10,000 Dresses, offered transgender children their very own fairy tale. The book’s protagonist, Bailey, dreams of wearing a crystal gown. Bailey’s family insists that boys don’t wear dresses, but when Bailey befriends a neighbor with a sewing machine, she makes a dress that fits the girl she knows she is.

Bailey’s story of family rejection reflects an experience shared by far too many gender-nonconforming children. But as more and more parents think critically about gender, a new wave of children’s books depicts families who encourage their kids to be who they are.

When Jennifer Carr‘s oldest child confessed that she felt like a girl inside, Carr searched for a relatable storybook that would help her child feel less alone. She brought home 10,000 Dresses, but Carr’s children didn’t like that Bailey’s family rejected her because she was transgender.

Carr needed a book that reflected her child’s experience, a story of acceptance and familial support. So Carr wrote that book herself.

In 2011 Carr published Be Who You Are, a storybook about a male-assigned child who tells her parents she feels like a girl inside. Her parents tell her to “be who you are,” and Nick grows out her hair, wears dresses, and changes her name to “Hope.”

While Carr was struggling to understand her child’s gender identity in Chicago, Seattle mom Cheryl Kilodavis was consulting experts about her son, who had taken to wearing princess costumes. At first, Kilodavis tried to redirect her son’s interests, worried that his love for tiaras would make him a target for bullies. But pediatricians and child psychologists put Kilodavis’ mind at ease.

The photo of Kilodavis' son depicts a "princess boy" wearing a purple tutu and a sparkly sequin hat.“The verdict was: He is a happy and healthy little boy who just likes pretty things and likes to dress up,” Kilodavis told Parents magazine. “The advice was not to over-encourage it or over-discourage it.”

Kilodavis eventually authored My Princess Boy, a picture book about a young boy with an affinity for “girl things.” The protagonist, Dyson, isn’t transgender, but he certainly defies gender norms. Like Hope’s family in Be Who You Are, Dyson’s family loves him exactly the way he is.

The book has led some online commentators to question Kilodavis’ parenting methods, and Kilodavis isn’t alone. Jennifer Carr has also faced criticism for parents who disagree with her message.

“I had people saying wolves should raise my children instead of me,” Carr told the Windy City Times.

But most of the feedback that Kilodavis and Carr receive has been overwhelmingly positive.

Kilodavis and Carr are filling a void in children’s literature that doesn’t only help kids—these books are showing parents what supportive families look like, and for that, these radical mothers deserve some serious props.

To find one of Cheryl Kilodavis’ Acceptance Play Groups in your area, visit her website. Follow Jennifer Carr’s story on her blog, Today You Are You.

Recently I have been playing with the idea of writing my own children’s book. I tutor elementary schoolers at my local library in reading. I have one tutoree in particular who has touched me deeply. She is a first grader who likes black and red and is constantly called an evil tomboy by her classmates and older sister. Needless to say, she reminds me a lot of me. She also likes playing practical jokes and tricking people (my other, more villainous alter-ego is a trickster). My tutoree was very reserved and shy when we first met this January, but now that the program is over we get along famously. Her mother personally thanked me and told me that I really helped her daughter out in more than just reading. She is more confident and is thinking about things in new ways- they want me to be her tutor all next year as well.

I want to write a children’s book about her. For girls like her. Its really hard to find picture books that she’ll find interesting when all of the ones about little girls are like: sleepovers, pink, and stupid. I want to write a book about a tricky girl who likes dark colors. I want to write about how she is not evil, she is just herself. She doesn’t have to like pink or purple to be good. Color preference doesn’t make you inherently good or evil. Only the choices you make and how you treat people determines that.

-BatCat

Pierce and Gaiman: Writing Women as People

I was practically born with a book in my hand. Words, whether the creation of or the internalizing of, have been a constant of my life ever since I could read. This intense love of reading has shaped my character and worldview. From Ray Bradbury to Naomi Wolf, a wide variety of writers, geeky and not geeky, have had their hands in creating the person I am today. Today’s post is, in a way, a love letter to two of those writers, the two most dear to my heart. (It’s also partly to convince anyone who stumbles on this post and has never given either of them a try, to go to the library/bookstore/friend’s house and pick up a copy of one of their books.)

The first, chronologically, is Tamora Pierce. I discovered her Protector of the Small quartet when I was in middle school, at exactly the right time. The series follows Kel, the first girl to go through the process of becoming a knight, after the rule prohibiting women from becoming knights was abolished. (That was due to the brave efforts of Alanna, featured in the Song of the Lioness quartet, who disguised herself as a boy in order to become a knight.) Pierce’s fiction is always empowering to young girls, featuring strong, realistic characters of both genders, and destroying the well-known myth that swords are for boys. From the moment I picked up First Test, I was in love.

Pierce is a pioneer in young adult fantasy. The Song of the Lioness quartet was published in the ’80s, at time when library shelves weren’t exactly bursting with girl-friendly fantasy novels. This has changed to some degree, and certainly when I was in middle school, many of the fantasy/sci-fi/adventure young adult books were about girls and/or featured strong  female characters. Being pretty divorced from young adult fiction right now, I’m not totally qualified to make this statement, but when I do browse the shelves, the post-Twilight young adult fiction world seems to be a pretty dismal one with paranormal romance overshadowing badass girls and women wielding swords and magic. Luckily, Pierce’s novels are still being discovered by generations of young girls in need of empowerment, not a boyfriend. (Although there is nothing wrong with having a boyfriend.)

Tamora Pierce handles it all: magic, battles, romance, even periods. And she does it in a way that made 11-year-old me damn proud to be a girl. In a previous post, I mentioned Pierce’s positive portrayal of “not white” people. While often her books take place in Tortall, a sort of typical European country, not all of her main characters are white. One of my favorite Pierce characters is Daja, the girl in the Circle of Magic who becomes a magic-wielding blacksmith. I don’t know of many other fantasy novels, young adult or adult, that feature a black girl at home both in the forge and amongst magicians.

Unfortunately, I no longer read Pierce’s work. I, being an adult and all, have moved on from young adult literature. (Although I will totally read the Numair series when it comes out. I’ve been waiting way too long.) There is nothing inherently wrong in being an adult who reads (some) young adult fiction, but it’s no longer for me. This is a shame because, frankly, there isn’t much in the adult fantasy world that can compare to Pierce. I’m always looking for something to fill the void in my heart and in my fantasy collection that, at age 12, was filled with badass women but is now filled with princess-babes and evil sorceresses.

One writer who helps ease the pain is Neil Gaiman. In a dismal sea of adult fantasy/sci fi/horror/comics populated with hot chicks and women with power who are inherently evil, there are Neil Gaiman’s works. Gaiman is a cross-genre magician, and has enjoyed increasing mainstream success in the last few years. I couldn’t be happier that Gaiman is getting mainstream attention (he was on Craig Ferguson’s show and will be on The Simpsons!). After all, in addition to being a wizard with words, structure, sheer imagination, his female characters are like actual characters. Real people. Even when men are the main characters of his work, he doesn’t skimp on characterization for the women, like so many male authors do. He even carries on the Alice tradition of the girl heroine in Coraline, which has been adapted into everything short of a TV series (well, a film and a graphic novel, anyway).

My first exposure was Neverwhere, lent to me, in high school, by my Tori Amos-loving older sister. Gaiman and Amos are long-time pals who are constantly mentioning each other in their work. It’s enough to be close friends with a fiercely unapologetic feminist, but Gaiman doesn’t stop there. His work is one of the only mainstream adult fantasy (for lack of an overarching genre) writers who I never have to worry about getting a female character sexual assaulted, marginalized, dismissed, or just unfairly characterized. Gaiman respects women, and his work obviously shows it.

In particular, his groundbreaking Sandman series is pretty remarkable for many reasons, but especially when its women are considered. I’m not sure that today DC (who owns Vertigo) would even want to publish it, given its strong female characters, lesbians who aren’t even hot (why bother being a lesbian if you’re dumpy looking?), total lack of sexual assault, and habit of not drawing women to look like pin-ups.

I’ve become discouraged by adult fantasy after too many novels that absolutely ignore women, or include women only as prostitutes, mothers, and destructive schemers. I left the Piercean world of fantasy and entered a much bleaker, much less welcoming world where women are hot or evil or vapid, but rarely the well-rounded real people of Pierce and Gaiman’s worlds. Thankfully, Pierce’s work has endured, and she continues to write the same girl-empowering books she always has. And Gaiman isn’t going anywhere, so I know that whenever I want a well-written, imaginative story (regardless of genre, or even age level) I’ve got a woman-friendly ally in him.

I will end this by urging all of you to pick up a book written by one of these authors, and swim in the refreshing oasis they each built out of what can be a dry literary desert. (And if you know of a woman-friendly, empowering author, whatever genre, that I should know about, please leave a comment!)

-Joanna