Fantasy writer (and much more) Sofia Samatar has written an excellent post on Race and Fandom in which she broaches important topic(s) very worth considering and discussing.
My initial, brief, response was this:
I opened the link to Farah Mendlesohn’s article “Crowning the Prince” intending to look it over and come back to it another time, but I read it in its entirety right then and there, took notes, and jotted down some thoughts.
Thank you for bringing up the topic of hollow multiculturalism in literature, Sofia. I think of a McDonaldization of culture where the metaphorical chicken nuggets are normal and a real chicken, recognizable and complete with anatomy and the the bone still in it is unnatural or at least gross and alien. You know, that most Americans think of eggs as white is another aspect of this: only certain chickens lay white eggs.
In other countries (In any country, we just don’t see them too often here in the States) eEggs come in all those other colors they normally come in: brown, tan, blue, speckled.
I had a thought regarding the house-elves in the Harry Potter books: what if they were a magic-bio-engineered species created specifically to serve humanity, without a sense of identity of self? Like robots, except magic for science. One of the interesting and problematic aspects of robots, a question many novels treat and raise is, of course, their subordinate nature and why self-aware and free peoples would create a self-aware non-free being. But by dismissing the possibility of house-elf freedom by simply stating ‘they don’t want it, ever, can’t, not in their nature, can’t change their genetics’ this entire discussion is erased. Actually, it prevents the question from arising. Which is worse. [This also ties in with the hero’s lack of agency and lack of bravery, since “bravery is about choice” as Mendlesohn wrote.]
Yep. I went right ahead and read Farah Mendlesohn’s article Crowning the King: Harry Potter and the Construction of Authority all the way through – coffee got cold, didn’t make brunch, just read and took some notes. Some of what she wrote touches on my interest in why fantasy is important: Mendlesohn writes that Rowling’s work, which she acknowledges (at the time the article was published) as an unfinished work, “… leads to a rejection of the subversive opportunities available to the fantasist exemplified in the works of Lewis Carroll and others: if a world is fundamentally fair and rational, subversion is politically unnecessary.” Yeah, read that again – better yet, read the article, if you don’t have time, read the paragraph that quote is from!
Hierarchy and authority are never questioned in the Harry Potter world, it’s only a matter of who is on top. You hope it’s the “good guys,” you know, the ones who are “nice” and who are “fair.” Mendlesohn points out the problem here: “The ideological structures of Rowling’s work focus on a manipulation of this uncritical construction of ‘fairness’. The denial of ideology which forms a significant element of the text promotes a willing suspension of intellectual rigor.” Whose idea of righteousness and fairness? We don’t question the ideology behind these terms because Rowling doesn’t and her characters don’t – they’re universal, aren’t they? Exactly the problem. Because the power of fantasy, the distancing effect of the fantastic, allows the reader to see herself and her culture from outside (as much as one can see from without that which one is within). Throwing that opportunity away, not engaging the reader to question her understanding of “fair” and of “right” and maintaining the status quo is disappointing at best, to the serious fantasy reader, it is much worse. Now you can see why I kept reading and let my coffee get cold.
Please also check out Saladin Ahmed‘s article: Is “Game of Thrones” too white? and Aliette de Bodard‘s post We’re all the same deep down, or “it’s all a matter of degree”. Both are excellently written, approachable, readable, and worth discussing.
Here’s a selection from Saladin Ahmed’s article: “When it comes to inherited conventions regarding race in epic fantasy, “Game of Thrones” is, in a sense, standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. The Lord of the Rings is the most obvious predecessor to Martin’s work, and it’s not hard to find subtle rhetorical responses to Tolkien in his books. When Time magazine dubbed Martin “the American Tolkien,” it highlighted not only Martin’s rather astonishing genius in world-building and narrative scope, but also the ideological baggage that all of us writing in the genre have inherited from our shared progenitor.”
Start reading your Rousseau. I remember watching LotR with my friend, Kim. At one point she said something like: “It’s been about an hour, time for a woman to walk across the screen and look all misty-eyed.” She could also have said that it was time for someones with dark skin to walk across the screen looking the “part of a savage horde,” as Ahmed put it.
And I’m very thankful for Aliette de Bodard for discussing what makes the statement “we’re all the same deep down” problematic, because, well, it’s true, basically. It’s called the human condition and it’s why art is so powerful, why and how it can pull a reaction from an audience that is not the artist. But it is a problematic statement and it doesn’t sit right. “At the same time… I think the main problem I have with the above sentences [We’re all the same deep down, or “it’s all a matter of degree”] is that they’re too reductive: they go straight to what they see as “the essential”, and forget that our lives are often made up of many large and small details, of a mosaic of beliefs and cultural mores which comes from the environment we’ve been raised in, the society we’ve moving in, the subcultures we’re members of, the people we frequent… Yeah, we’re all the same deep down, but, broadly speaking, life in Hồ Chí Minh City follows very different rhythms from life in Paris…” I remembered what I wrote on Women with clean houses: redux, (on some levels there are and on some levels there are not this thing we term “people”) and continued to think thanks to her post.
Maybe go read these posts and their comments after you warm-up your coffee.