Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The History At Home | 16. Fantastic Females

I’ve had a bit more time to read lately. It’s one of the benefits of enforced rest. (Although, it makes me wonder why I always have to get sick in order to slow down. ) I’ve always loved fantasy. Even as I grew more conscious of my identity, I still found myself returning to this genre in spite of our lack of representation. In her book, Touch Magic, Jane Yolen helped me with this quote,
“Stories lean on stories, art on art. Stories lean on stories, cultures on cultures. Thus, for example, in the adaptable Spiderman who helps the poor, the vulnerable, and the helpless we see Prometheus and Robin Hood, though his abilities also echo the African Anansi The Spider. In the rage and strength of The Incredible Hulk we see Atlas and Hercules. Sly, vain, heroic Fonzie is both Loki and Achilles crossed with Lancelot du Lac. The Bionic Woman springs directly from Diana The Huntress and the Amazons, propelled by the electronic revolution and feminist rage. This is mythic archaeology, probing now for then, splitting the present to find the past.”

Then, I came across the article “The Intercultural Sojourn As The Hero’s Journey” by William B. Hart. For many African-Americans, our experience has been to learn to navigate two cultures. The Hero's Journey, in which the the seeker becomes the master of two worlds reflects our own life process.

Unfortunately, some of my favourite fantasy authors are also cultural pilferers. Neil Gaiman with his Anansi Boys and Charles De Lint with his “first people” like Raven, Jack Daw and The Crow Girls are telling some original and provacetive stories. They do their research. They handle the subject matter respectfully. They have great big wonderful imaginations and appear to have a genuine desire to include all of the human race in the worlds they create. I appreciate that, considering that most fantasy has alabaster elves and porcelian princesses. I’m not complaining too loudly. But, facts is facts and the fact remains that they appropriate our culture, myths and faiths.

It seems as if the publishing world believes that one African-American woman science fiction / fantasy writer every ten to twenty years is plenty. First came Hugo and Nebula award winning Octavia Butler. Some of my favourites include: Patternmaster Series, (Wildseed, Mind Of My Mind, Clay's Ark.) Kindred , and the terrifying Xenogenesis trilogy (Lilith's Brood .)

Probably because it resonates for so many others, this quote is everywhere. "I'm a 48-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial -- a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles -- a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Sounds familiar.

Like Adrienne Kennedy, Butler was a Black woman who dared to work outside of the genres usually assigned to Black writers. Whereas Kennedy is surreal, Butler is frightening realistic. When she became the first writer of science fiction to receive a MacArthur Genus grant, I thought surely things would change. I thought surely the publishing houses would be hunting for authors to keep her company on the shelves of bookstores. Surely, now everyone can why creative genius is often a by-product of the Black female experience.

So, we got one. Nalo Hopkinson. For some reason, I read her second novel, Midnight Robber, first. I was thrilled. I had never experienced anything like it before. All of her characters were Black; they lived on the planet Toussaint; their culture was distinctly Caribbean and is was exquisitely written. The moment I finished the book, I determined to vote with my dollars. I left my house immediately to purchase Brown Girl In the Ring - her debut novel.

I still vote with my dollars for Nalo, and have not been disappointed. Sometimes she doesn’t tell me the tale I want to hear. But, she’s out there weaving our mythology, our history, and our present to our future. And I think the sister needs to get as much attention (checks in the mail and film offers) as she can. She has a keen mind and is unafraid to use it publicly. See this interview.

And I have to say I respect the fact that she works hard to make sure that the world knows that she, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes aren’t the only Black Sci-Fi / fantasy writers out there right now. She could just write her own work and be satisfied with that. To date, she has edited or co-edited three anthologies: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, Mojo: Conjure Stories, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy.

Thanks to the pioneering efforts of both these women, meet Nnendi Okorafor-Mbachu, the author of Zahrah The Windseeker. I have to say I prefer the cover of the first publication.) This is one of those books which feeds my inner 9 to 13 year old child. This debut novel set in an African-inspired world. It address being different, learning self-acceptance and challenging the status quo. It encourages young women to probe beneath the surface and find their own solutions.

Dadalocks are like dreadlocks only they have vines growing in them. Most people in the Ooni Kingdom think people with dadalocks are troublesome rebels or witches. A small minority of people believe that they are destined to be wise. Zahrah was born with the dadalocks. She does her best to be quiet, cooperative, and keep her head down so she won’t get teased by the other children.

Her only friend Dari, is popular, witty, independent thinker. After her first menses, Zahrah discovers that she can float. Enthusisatic about this new ability, Dari insists that they venture into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to practice. Whilst there, Dari is bitten by a war snae and slips into a coma. The only known cure is to be found deep within the jungle, and off Zahrah goes.

It is am impressive debut. At the same time, I found the writing to be a little forced or predicatble. I read along and say, Ah, here she is crossing the first threshhold. Oh, the next chapter will be the supreme ordeal. None of these are reasons not to read this young adult novel or share it with a pre-teen. Now, I'm off to find her second book The Shadow Seeker.

It is time for these women to be more widely recognized.


Misque Writer said...

Facinating post. I loved the quote, “Stories lean on stories, art on art. Stories lean on stories, cultures on cultures." I'm a fan of Octavia Butler.

Christina Springer said...

Thanks Misque. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Jane Yolen's book, Touch Magic, is about the importance of fantasy. It is a great read and full of excellent statements like the one I used.

Misque Writer said...

I've added it, along with a few others you mentioned, to my ever-so-long Amazon Wish List. :)