Been sort of vaguely following the whole kerfuffle over that dumbass article on fantasy over at the NY Times. (I mean “dumbass” in the most respectful way.) I’m not particularly upset about it because ignorant bigotry rarely upsets me; it’s the bigotry of the supposedly knowledgeable that I find more dangerous. And this is bigotry, for all that we’ll probably use a less inflammatory phrase for it, like “genre snobbery” or whatever. The thoughtless, irrational, overly-generalized adherence to a set of wrong beliefs about a whole group of people is always bigotry. It’s worse when those beliefs cause the believer to harm the group in question — like, supporting laws and an economic system designed to hurt them — but it’s ugly even when the hate is relatively harmless, like in that NYT article. (There’s another review over at Slate that’s just as negative, but not biased against fantasy as a category. See? It’s not hard.) So even though I haven’t read Martin’s books myself and don’t have HBO so won’t be watching the series for awhile, and have no time for TV anyway while I’m in copyedit mode, I totally get others’ anger over the whole thing.
Still, the reviewer’s casual assumption that no women (or PoC, by implication; I noticed her little horrified bit about the screenwriter going from Spike Lee to this?!?1! as if the two film phenomena were mutually exclusive) could possibly enjoy swords and magic and stuff, reminds me of how I became an epic fantasy fan.
It was during middle school. Like all middle schools, it was kind of hellish; the tweens are when identity formation is at its most blatant and brutal, and I was caught somewhere between black and geek — two very, very different camps in those days, in that place. The other black kids snarked that I “talked proper” and read books all the time and didn’t seem ashamed of getting good grades. The other geek kids happily squee’d with me over Doctor Who or Galaxy Rangers, but got really quiet around me — or said unbelievably screwed-up stuff like “Oh, I just try not to think of you as black!” — whenever something racist happened at school. I went to school in Alabama, note. “Something racist” happened a lot.
(And before you get all indignant on my behalf — thanks — note that this was nearly 30 years ago. I’m over it, obviously. I’ve also spent the intervening time studying racial identity development theory, education and group dynamics, and coming to understand why that kind of behavior happens. If you’re really curious, you can understand it too. I’m not interested in rehashing all of that here, though, because Tatum does it so well, and because it’s off-topic from my point.)
All this time, I was writing. And like many women and writers of color who’ve internalized the notion that they are inferior and their stories don’t matter, all of my characters were white and male. I read lots of science fiction and fantasy, and all those characters were white guys; that was what I saw, so that was what I wrote. But around this time it started to bug me that that was all I wrote, and that that was all I saw. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I can’t remember if I’d read Octavia Butler by that point, but I doubt I would’ve gotten much out of her if I had — not enough explosions. I wasn’t ready. Anyway, caught between the philosophical/aesthetic demands of my identities, I began to feel painfully isolated.
I had a friend back then who I was slightly embarrassed by. Shames me to think of it now, but I was a shallow, confused little person back then, like most tweens. I’m heartened by the fact that I was friends with her, and didn’t ostracize or avoid her. We fit well together. She was tall and gawky; so was I. She openly enjoyed comic books and skiffery; I was more prone to hide the covers of my books so nobody would see the lurid dragons or spaceships… but so did I. Most likely I saw something of myself in her, which was why I found her so uneasy-making. She was more comfortable with a part of her identity that I hadn’t fully embraced. But she was the closest thing I had to a best friend. She was white, though, and there were things I just couldn’t talk to her about. I tried a little, but I didn’t have the language to express the problem, and after awhile I stopped trying. She never talked about it, and I figured she’d chosen to ignore the elephant in the room, as so many did.
One day she brought me something, though: one of the big, indie-published issues of a little-known comic called Elfquest.
Wasn’t my thing at all, I thought, looking at it. I wasn’t much into comics at all, really, and this one had the sort of cartoony, faux-manga art that I’d seen elsewhere and disdained. I was too nice to say to my friend, “What the hell is this?” but I suspect she could see it on my face. So — really hesitantly — she took it back and handed me one of the later issues, flipping it open so I could see. Not too far into the series, she explained, the elven protagonists travel into the desert and find a tribe of brown elves. Those brown elves become important characters. They’re not the villains or the ignorant savages who need to be civilized and saved by the white elves — quite the opposite, in fact. And yeah, she acknowledged, they weren’t black, more like American Indians or Arabs or something — but they were there. They mattered. Somehow she knew how much I needed that.
Lost touch with that friend since. I wish I hadn’t. Hope she’s OK.
That was my introduction to epic fantasy. No, not Tolkien; I’d tried him and bounced off. But eventually I went back, tried LotR again, and liked it. And eventually I found C. S. Friedman, and liked that more. And eventually I found Louise Cooper, and Tanith Lee, and CLAMP — yeah, RG Veda is kickass epic fantasy, ditto a bunch of their stuff — and Jane Yolen and Heather Gladney and Carol Berg and Lynn Flewelling and Nnedi Okorafor and Hiromu Arakawa and so many more. So very many more. And I followed Elfquest all the way to the end. And eventually I started writing epic fantasy myself — but with brown characters this time, not just white. And women, not just men. Who were all there, and who mattered.
There’s no point to this anecdote. Well, maybe I’m trying to say that this is why dumbassery a la that NYT article doesn’t really bother me — because I started tuning out people who were that ignorant when I was thirteen, and I’m pretty good at it now. But really, I’m not trying to say anything about that article. I don’t care about it. It’s there, but it doesn’t matter. I’m all grown up now, and I know what really does.
‘Kay, back to copyediting.