By Erin Bow
If you hit the default setting button on your YA fantasy, you get Celtic.
Personally I blame Tolkien. He’s the source of so many of our inherited and half-thought out ideas about what high fantasy should be. This is not a criticism of the master T – there are few writers I love more. He loved and knew Anglo-Saxon lore – Beowulf, Sir Gawaine. He loved the great Northern sagas, the Eddas, and if the One Ring doesn’t have something to do with Nibelungenlied, I’ll eat my fantasist’s hat.
Still, would that all fantasy writers tapped such a deep well when creating their worlds. My pet peeve with much high fantasy is that the setting feels like a set dressing – as if the story were taking place on a stage, and the fictional world extends only a few inches farther than the reader can see.
There’s nothing in the wings of many fantasy worlds, and that’s too bad. I personally believe that all fantasy worlds need an ecology, an economy, and a mythology. If there are horses, there should be grazing lands. There should be horse breeders and stables and people making tack. When the horses are all picketed for the night and the wanderers build a fire, there should be songs they know and stories that they tell. There should be things in the dark all around them, and they should be afraid.
To get that kind of depth, you either have to be a genius, as Tolkien was, or you have to borrow a mythos, as Tolkien did. Indeed, 76 years after the publication of The Hobbit, fantasy itself has become a sort of second-hand mythos. Like many second-hand things it is a bit shabby – a mishmash of fairy courts and sword fights and horses and stew, ripe for parody. (Diana Wynne Jones skewered it as Fantasyland.) Even those of us that try to strip the Fantasyland layer away and get back to deeper, original mythos often find ourselves somewhere in reach of the Shire, probably near Grimm forests.
The Grimm forest is fine – the little girl, the ancient woods, that’s a good start. But if you stop to look at her, you might notice something. That little girl is always white.
For instance: I have a book that’s just out, a fantasy for readers young and not-so-young, called Sorrow’s Knot. It started for me as most of my novels do, with a character – a girl named Otter – who lived in a wood full of whispering trees. I knew that in Otter’s world, people used string to bind the dead, who were otherwise inclined to be troublesome and, say, devour your mind. I had the image of hands both bound and powerful with a red cat’s cradle strung between them. I had a thought: if knots give power over life and death, what would happen if someone had too much of that power?
Not a bad start. I’ve tried to write books with less. But this one just wouldn’t come together. I defaulted to white. For a couple of years the story and I wandered around Fantasyland, picking up rangers and monsters and horses and swords. Nothing gelled. I had only that girl, Otter, with the red cords between her hands, and the feel of the haunted, holy forest that surrounded her.
And then I found the forest.
I went to the Black Hills in South Dakota. The Black Hills today are trying to be all Deadwood and Rushmore — Americana High Tourist Kitsch — but they are not that. To the traditional people who live there, the Black Hills are holy, they are the center of the world. If you go there, you can feel it: that the land is powerful. The light is different. The shadows are different. It is wild and uneasy, and I loved it.
After I found the forest, the rest of the story seemed to come into focus. It was as if I’d found Otter’s whole world — and I had.
Now, Sorrow’s Knot, like many fantasies, is ahistorical – there was never a world like this, and never a people like this. If you start with the dead rising and give women (and only women) the power to tie them up with yarn, you don’t end up with an authentically moving portrait of, say, the Lakota Sioux. For the more magical aspects, I took inspiration from the Celtic (yup!) and the Japanese and I flat-out made stuff up.
But still. A forest drawn from the Black Hills? A hero named Otter? I suddenly and belatedly knew: this is not Fantasyland, and these people are not white.
And that’s how I ended up writing about what various reviewers have called “an indigenous culture untouched by colonialism” or “a fantastic North America,” or a world “evoking Native American lore and legend.”
Here we need to talk a little bit about appropriation. After all, Native American cultures have been ruthlessly and systematically suppressed – and people are quite rightly protective of what’s survived. They need to be, because we Settler types pick up attractive pieces of Native cultures – sweat lodges and dream catchers and stories — like baubles abandoned on the beach. This doesn’t involve actual murder, but it’s still pernicious, and it’s something I wanted to be careful about.
On the other hand, the miracle of fiction is that writing about people who are in various profound ways Not You is possible. It is possible to imagine your way into another culture.
It’s possible, but you can’t just glue some feathers and blood sacrifice onto ye olde sword and sorcery story and call it Aztec. Real cultural diversity is far more than a matter of just changing the trappings of the tale and the color of people’s skin.
It takes research, and research of a certain kind. You have to research until you can get to the inside of something. For Sorrow’s Knot, I researched foodways and architecture of the Mandan people, and the broader ethnobotany of the North American plains. I learned to drum and talked to sacred storytellers. I learned how to forage for food, and how to carry a live coal in your pocket. I read tale after tale after tale for my story that revolves around storytelling.
Slowly, through this research, I began to imagine Otter’s life – her home, her food, her ceremonies, her friends. She and her people got inside my head in a certain way and her story unfolded from within that imagined culture.
Or, so I hope. I spent a lot of time chanting “please don’t be racist, please don’t be racist.” And even if it’s not, it has the fingerprints of its city-dwelling, science-minded, white-chick author all over it. But it is a very different tale than the one I had imagined back in fantasyland. It had a right good kick in the defaults. It is no longer set to “white.” And that itself is something.
Other people have thoughtfully articulated the reasons why “default to white” is bad – there are several. From a writer’s perspective, what I rarely hear discussed is the loss. The world is full of great traditions. That we limit ourselves – unconsciously, mostly – to those that are already so well-trodden is sad. Our literature could be so much richer. There are so many other rivers from which we could draw.
It’s kind of a hike to those rivers. But right now I’m thinking it’s worth it.
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