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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

While fantasy novels promise the ability to reach the limits of our imaginations, it’s still not often that authors choose to tell stories with no humans in them at all. Estrangement is a common way to describe fantasy, but crossing the gap to completely alien biologies and societies puts more distance between a reader than just throwing in unfamiliar words, behaviours and cultures. I know plenty of readers thrown off by the first chapter of Dune just from the terminology used in the first chapter. Unless you map creatures against a clear historical human antecedent like the Edwardian dragons of Tooth and Claw, you need to put in some real effort to make readers accept and care about characters who don’t look like people.

This barrier comes up immediately in Martha Wells’s Books of Raksura. The main characters are a species of shape-shifting, flying humanoids who structure their society unlike any human one, and the entire vastness of the Three Realms likewise is packed with varied intelligent species who call the land, the water, the air, or the islands that also float up in the sky their homes.

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Three bits of art I made in January, two digital and one with ink. Posting because I thought these were better than anything I did all through 2019.

The last is a tribute to Cybersix, a character from an Argentinian comic that improbably became a Canadian-Japanese cartoon in 1999. The original comic, as far as I can tell, has never been translated into English or Japanese.

I also did a painting commission for Marie over at Shrink & Expand, which you can see here.

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Charles De Lint is highly prolific and has explored a wide range of styles, but Moonheart (1984) set the dominant flavour for his work. When you think of the name Charles De Lint, you think of a very specific kind of urban fantasy.

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A scene from “Wings in the Night” by Robert E. Howard.

WordPress.com makes it a bit of a pain to share artwork – it’s just not what this platform was built for. If you want to follow that side of my creative output, you can find me posting drawings and paintings much more frequently on DeviantArt, Instagram, and most recently, mastodon.art.

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I’ve noticed a growing swell of first- and second-generation immigrant writers of fantasy expressing anxiety over drawing on their family’s culture for their work, or the consequences they face when they don’t.

The fears are the same: getting criticism for lack of authenticity – not being a “real” member of that culture – or getting pigeonholed and then ostracized for not reflecting the dominant narrative of “the immigrant.” These fears reflect our own destabilized experiences as liminal cultural actors. We appear steeped in a culture but not in a geography, not quite of the place your family came from but not quite of the place you are, either, and with that lack of belonging comes an internalized sense of inevitable rejection from both places.

I wrote a long time ago about how having a liminal identity can go hand in hand with the desire to write fantasy and science fiction, but I didn’t touch on how carving that space carries its own implicit dangers. Immigrants become scared of casting an already contested identity out into the world; if you don’t conform to certain set boundaries set by others without your experience, you can face backlash.

On the one hand, you wrote your family’s culture and language wrong because you aren’t a true part of that culture and language. You didn’t grow up there. Or you left. 

On the other, you wrote someone else’s culture wrong because you didn’t base your stories on the culture that’s also “yours.” You are an outsider, stay with what you know. And let’s say you do that; well, those without any connection to your family’s culture will still find ways to point out how you did it wrong, because you didn’t stick to the story they’ve constructed about you.

Every choice is a mistake, every attempt to express and navigate your identity in writing isn’t the “right” way.

I have no easy response to any of these anxieties. They are just a part of being an immigrant, along with so many others. You can’t know how your writing will be reflected back on you, but where else to work out these contradictions, than in the imaginative space?

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A long while back, I wrote a short essay called “Writing the city” that I never published, yet the misgivings that went into that essay keep stirring my brain. The main question is this:

In literary criticism of fantasy, why are long descriptions of the natural world and farmland or villages often labeled as boring, but when China Miéville fills page upon page with adjective-laden descriptions of architecture, this passes without comment, or even gets praise?

Picking on Miéville is unfair; it’s a much broader question of why focusing on urban environments and concerns seems to carry more critical weight in fantasy literature than works rooted in descriptions of nature when the quality of the writing itself may not differ. The conversation presents them as more serious, more real – the city as the subject of noteworthy work while nature is less so.

I haven’t had the wherewithal to dig up concrete examples, which is probably why the original essay ended up disappearing with the demise of Windows Live Writer. All I have to go on is a nagging suspicion since I started dipping into SFF blogs and articles that we tend to privilege urban experiences over rural ones.

Of course, urban experiences are more of a norm in western society – more people live in cities, most cultural production takes place in cities, and the same impressions pass on to fantasy that plays at being serious work.

It plays into another experience. When I went to university in Edmonton and Montreal, certain people who grew up or inserted themselves into those cities held themselves as more cultured than I was, dismissed my stories of life in the woods around Whitehorse as of less value than their own, or else expressed disbelief in my stories about growing up here. I hardly consider Whitehorse as some backwater, not when compared to the small communities that dot the Yukon or the people who live far from even those communities. Yet the divide, the sense of alienation is there: your thoughts are less worldly than theirs, your thoughts mean less.

Yet there isn’t anything inherently inferior about stories rooted in these places and experiences, they are just different, in need of a different voice.

Again, these are all impressions, and I open it up to you to tell me if I’m just projecting deep-seated insecurities from my personal life onto the field of genre criticism, or if this is a real problem with the way the SFF world receives stories.

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Marie talks about Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which begins with A Natural History of Dragons.

I am also present, largely to provide colour.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s blog (Podcast Marie, not Brennan Marie)

Source of our theme song

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