Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: neil gaiman

Avoiding Othering: They’re Doing It Right

Last week I talked about Othering, as in setting a demographic not your own as a Weird/Exotic “THEM” in contrast to your (and your assumed reader’s) “us.”

Thankfully, there are so many great examples of works that avoid Othering! Here are just a few:

Fiction: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Cover of Gaiman's Anansi BoysWhat is it?

Gaiman’s 2005 novel follows Fat Charlie, one of two sons of a mysterious man who it turns out is literally the West African trickster god Anansi. Anansi/Mr. Nancy showed up briefly in Gaiman’s previous novel, American Gods. In Anansi Boys, Fat Charlie and his brother Spider have to sort out quite a lot of trouble following their father’s death. The action of the story bounces between London and Florida.

How does it avoid Othering?

Put it this way: a friend of mine, when reading this book, commented that about halfway through she realized to her delight that all the characters were black. There are actually two white characters, a side character and a villain. So on the one hand, Gaiman’s flipping the script on the usual racial demographic in your standard Tokeninzing, Othering text. On the other hand, Gaiman mostly doesn’t make a big, obvious deal about the race of the characters. There are enough context clues to figure out what all of the characters look like, but more so than that, the cultural context of the characters is really important to the plot.

Film: The Legend of Korra, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Koniestzko

Pictured:  Korra displays earth, water and firebending in THE LEGEND OF KORRA on Nickelodeon.  Photo: Nickelodeon.  ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc.  All Rights Reserved

She is the chosen one who can bend all the elements.

What is it?

This is an animated TV show set in the same world as Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was intended as a sequel, following the chosen-one-style heroine Korra on her adventures across the four elemental nations of the world.

How does it avoid Othering?

Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are set in a fantasy world that is loosely based on myths and legends of East Asia. They have a four-part magical martial arts system that is based in an exciting variety of real-world martial arts (mostly Chinese), with each element (fire, water, earth, air) having its own style and magical powers. The characters are a variety of shades, but look mostly asian…unlike the film, which got a lot of flak for being whitewashed. Korra has medium-brown skin and dark brown hair.

The Legend of Korra also recently received media attention because of its ending, a suggested coupling of Korra and her female friend, Asami. Those who liked this move liked it because it validated “in canon” a suspected relationship and a fan favorite couple. Those who did not criticized it because there were not enough moments or  passionate intimacy or sexual tension between the two women in the rest of the show, and then ending felt tacked-on. (I mean, I’m sure some criticized it because they couldn’t conceive of a same-sex relationship and/or reality, but we’re ignoring them.)

 

Comics: Bitch Planet, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Cover of Bitch Planet #1

Every time I read an issue I get the urge to tattoo “NON-COMPLIANT” on my forehead.

What is it?

This comic is one part feminist fable, one part deconstruction of the women-in-prison genre of film, and one part bad-ass dystopian action tale. It’s set in a world where women can be imprisoned for any behavior deemed “non-compliant,” from murder to disobedience to obesity. They are then shipped off to a prison planet (known colloquially as “Bitch Planet”) to deal with an ever-shifting Pepito-bismol pink holographic warden and other lurking dangers. You can read me freaking out about how great it is at some length over at Girlslikecomics.com.

How does it avoid Othering?

Not only are there a lot of women of color in this prison story, but both in the comic and in each issue’s back-matter, DeConnick and team directly deal with race relations and how unfair the prison system is in this world as well as the world of Bitch Planet.

Also, I can’t say too much without spoilers, but let me just say that the protagonist of Bitch Planet is refreshing and revealed over the course of the first issue.

DeConnick also works with an awesome, diverse creative team, both in terms of the art (stunning work by Valentine DeLandro) & design and in terms of the series of rad feminists who write essays in the back of every issue.

Bonus Fiction: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover for A Wizard of Earthsea featuring an island castle and a dragon

It’s hard to find pictures of the cover that features Ged as he’s described in the book. Perhaps marketers decided dragons were easier to deal with than people of color.

What is it?

LeGuin’s classic 1968 fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. It’s set in a fantasy world that is comprised of a bunch of different nations on different islands of an archipelago. With a unique magic system and a excitingly non-“interminable Celtic bullshit” mythology, Earthsea arguably did the first interesting new thing with the fantasy genre since Tolkien.

How does it avoid Othering?

The main character, Ged, is described as having red-brown skin; in fact, nearly every character is described as non-white. Of course, this didn’t prevent the characters from being horribly white-washed on book covers and film. Ursula LeGuin has some harsh words for the producers of the 2004 Earthsea mini-series:

I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.

She also speaks about her process in building the world of Earthsea:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.

 

Other examples? Thoughts? Tell us in the comments, eh?

 

Childhood Fear//Adulthood Fear

Take the following excerpt from an IndieBound interview with Neil Gaiman about his YA book, Coraline:

We’re getting two completely different reactions from two completely different reading audiences, and it’s kind of weird.

Reading audience number one is adults. Adults completely love it and they tell me it gave them nightmares. They found it really scary and disturbing, and they’re not sure it’s a good book for kids, but they loved it. Reading audience number two are kids who read it as an adventure and they love it. They don’t get nightmares, and they don’t find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don’t realize how much trouble Coraline is in — she is in big trouble — and adults read it and think, “I know how much trouble you’re in.”

girl on a bed with teddy bear; monster under bed

photo by Joshua Hoffine

What terrifies adults and children is not the same. A child may be driven mad with fright over a shape in the bedroom in the dark, which in their fertile imagination has become a ravening monster. A flick of the light switch by an adult hand and the monster is revealed to be nothing more than a blanket thrown over the back of a chair, oddly shaped and become monstrous in the darkness. On the flip side, an adult may become afraid or upset at the sight of a dead body; often young children are fascinated, in part because they may not know what’s happening and/or fully understand death. (When I taught preschool, we had to have the conversation about dead pets sometimes, which led inevitably to “yes they are under the ground now, no we cannot go see.”) The things that terrify children may seem inconsequential to adults; the things that terrify adults may seem perfectly natural to children.

Take fairy tales in particular. The violence and horror in, say, the Grimm tales mostly revolves around almost cartoonish punishments of evildoers and oddly implicit sexual violence. There is a wicked stepmother put into a barrel with spikes on the inside. The stepmother in “The Juniper Tree” eats her stepson after beheading him with the lid to a chest. Snow White’s wicked stepmother gets to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies. And it’s not much better for fathers: a father is tricked into chopping off his daughter’s hands by the devil, many others want to marry their daughters because the girls look so like their dead mothers. The Grimms carefully edited the tales and gave the most odious actions not to mothers, but to stepmothers. There’s the occasional stepfather, but it’s mostly stepmothers that get the brunt of the wickedness.

Aside from the implied misogyny, the wicked stepmother theme exposes a story that I think sometimes children tell themselves: They’re not my real parents. Somewhere far away, I have perfect parents who are always kind. Somewhere far away, I am a princess. I have a throne to claim, a sword to pull from a stone. This all falls down at some point in adolescence, of course, when we realize that adults are even more flawed than we thought, and that our parents–flaws and all–are actually our parents. (Although this narrative reads differently for the adopted. Here’s one story.) At some point, we discard the childish fantasies of who we thought our parents were and try to sink into reality.

So, long past adolescence and into adulthood, what horrors do fairy tales hold for us? In a reverse scenario of the child afraid of the dark, the light has come on for us adults and we can see the violence, the rape, and the gore in fairy tales for the horrors they are. And the characters who are closest to us in age are not longer the princesses, the goose girls, the plucky youngest sons, not Hansel nor Gretel nor Jack. No, the character who most resemble adults are the mothers, father, and step-parents, along with the occasional sexless mentor figure. A healthy parent who is doing a good job parenting in a rare beast in the Grimm tales. Suddenly, all the relate-able characters are villains who meet with horrible ends. And how does the aging woman deal withe her beautiful daughter becoming a sexual being? How does the widower deal with seeing his dead wife’s eyes in his daughter? How do you cope if you cannot afford to feed your children? There is no good example. Adults, in the tales, are there to be villains for children.

And that, I think, is the most terrifying thought of all. Take me: I am twenty-nine years old, and considering whether or not I ever want to have children. I fear, one way or another, becoming a de facto villain for any child I might have. My parents were in no way fairy tale parents, i.e. they did a pretty good job with us kids and didn’t pass on their more destructive neuroses or, like, leave us in the forest for witches to eat. Nevertheless, like probably every other 29-year-old, I fear turning into my parents. And the thought that I might not notice the day I Become My Mother fills me with as much dread as the scary robot I was convinced lived in our electrical system once did. Both are a fear of something you may or may not be powerless before, a fear that lives in your brain and wriggles out in awkward moments.

In Coraline, the title character is a little girl who discovers a passage in her house that leads to a different version of the world. The other world contains her Other Mother and her Other Father. Her Other Parents seem at first identical except nicer, and with black buttons sewn in place of their eyes. Coraline realized soon enough that her Other Parents are manipulative and want to trap her and sew buttons on her eyes, too. And at its most irrational, my adult brain fears the day when I find black buttons sewn on my eyes, and do not remember how they got there. buttoneyes

 

PS: For more of Goddard grad and all-round radsauce Liz Latty’s writing, check out her blog.

Five Spooky Halloween Reads

1. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury somethingwickedthiswaycomes

This novel, published in 1962, is the classic creepy carnival story. A train full of weird, creepy carnies pulls up to a little town and while almost everyone is pretending like the carnival is all normal and stuff, our two young protagonists can see the true horrors: soul-stealing mirror mazes, time-altering carousels, etc. It’s an interesting meditation on the nature of childhood and growing up as well as a damn fine creepy tale.

Good companion piece: “The Shining” by Stephen King–talk about the power of setting to warp characters’ minds!

2. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

11187While I’m on the subject of classics, let’s chat about this book. I’d seen the original, chilling 1975 movie starring Katherine Ross, and the 2004 remake with that ridiculous remote control boobs scene, but I hadn’t read the book until this fall. The book’s plot is not much different than the movie, aside from being a bit more overtly political. Joanna Eberhart is truly lonely in a new town, and so she tries to make friends with the town’s oddly perfect women. She and her one buddy, Bobbie, try to get women to band together, join a NOW chapter, and they all just politely wave her off because they are TERRIBLE WIFE-BOTS OMG. Spoilers. Um. But the thing is, I didn’t care that I knew the ending: Hearing the story through Joanna’s earnest point of view was terrifying, in part because much of America, suburbia in particular, has not really moved too far past Stepford. We are culturally haunted by Stepford: a secret conspiracy of average suburban men who somehow end up making “perfected” simaculra of their wives and then offing the originals.

 

A good companion piece to this would be the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark.”

3. Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Pretty-DeadlyThis is a brand-spankin’-new series put out by Image comics—as in you have to walk into a comic shop and pick up Issue #1 if they still have it in stock. This book is dynamite. It’s a supernatural western starring a mysterious Death-like character, narrated by a dead rabbit, and with a varied and interesting cast of bad-ass people doing dirty deeds. It’s got a stellar creative team: Emma Rios’ art is perfect for the feel of the story, I heart the crap out of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s writing, and I’m really excited about Jordie Bellaire’s colors. I mean, I rarely know the name of a colorist, much less get really excited about them. Anyway. Pick this one up, kids. It’s worth your time.

 

Great companion read: The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn (ongoing series)

 

4. The Last Halloween by Abby Howard

tlh-photo-mainHow’s about a comic for the low, low, price of free? Well, aside from your compulsive need to throw money at Abby Howard, its creator, because of it’s genius and sexy exciting merch. Also you may end up giving away bits of your soul, but…yeah. Pay no mind. Free comic! Hooray!

Abby Howard, of Strip Search fame, has launched her deliciously wicked comic, The Last Halloween. It’s an adventurous tale of horror and skullduggery with a cast of supernatural beasties and gorgeous black and white art to boot. It’s also got a wicked sense of humor: This comic in particular reads very Jhonen Vasquez-y, and I like it. Take a look: You won’t want to miss this one.

www.last-halloween.com

Good companion read: Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez.

 

5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

GraveyardBook_01-1024X768

Okay, here’s a latter-day classic that you can read with young-ish-uns without traumatizing them too badly. The Graveyard Book tells the tale of Bod, short for Nobody, who has grown up in a graveyard, raised by ghosts. The tale of how he got there and who he really is unfolds a mysterious man named Jack keeps making attempts of his life…

Good companion read: “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm. For fifth grade and up, it’s a great, gross, terrifying tale.

 

 

On Personal Oceans, and the Landscape of Childhood

IMG_0148

Waiting at the Burlington Airport, watching the jets go, reading.

At the Burlington International Airport, on the way home after getting my MFA, I impulsively bought Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to read on the plane, never mind that I was going to go see him read at Town Hall in Seattle the very next day.

I think it was the perfect book to read on the way back from Goddard College, a place that felt a little bit like the coolest writer sleep-away camp ever and a little bit like a memory of times already past. The Ocean at the End of the Lane deals with memory, and landscape, and the terrors that childhood holds. The sense of childhood horror is well-stated in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Maurice Sendak in conversation with Art Spiegelman: “I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

And the horrors that children know and adults try to blind themselves to is perhaps the emotional crux of this short and poignant novel. At his Town Hall talk, Gaiman explained some of the genesis of the book; he was missing his wife, Amanda Palmer, and wanted to write something for her. But she, apparently, doesn’t really like fantasy (I know, right?)…”but she likes me,” he said, “and she likes feelings. So I put some feelings in and toned down the supernatural a bit.” He also added a setting from his own Essex childhood; the picture on the back of a boy climbing on a house is a photo of Neil, Age Seven. (Although I skimmed the interior back flap too quickly and for a moment though they were describing the author photo, leaving me with the impression that NG had sprung fully formed from his mother’s forehead…) I find this novel differs from Gaiman’s other novels for adults because it has more feelings, quite frankly. He gets me right in the nostalgia. And no, my personal nostalgia does not revolve around the aftermath of a stranger’s suicide on a tiny rural English village, nor is it about a trio of maiden/mother/crone types who may or may not be an old farming family and/or supernatural entities from the dawn of time. But the sense of an adult going back and feeling intense nostalgia about childhood, both for the magic of being a child (literally, of course, here) and the terror of being a child. From a craft perspective, the first and last chapters do a brilliant job of lowering the reader into the world of the story through the layers of memory of the adult who is narrating about his childhood. This really is, as Gaiman asserts, a book for adults with a child narrator. I think it would be a fun read for a child or teen, but you wouldn’t really get the emotional punch until you were an adult, and especially an adult who had left home.

The poet David Wagoner introduced me to the lovely term psychotope, or the shape of the psyche. How hot is “hot.” How far is “far.” What “rain” looks like. And the narrator’s psychotope is clearly laid out in this novel: I could picture the mental map of this child’s world, the details of the dirt lane he lived on, the important places and things in his life. His logic, even when it seemed fantastic or illogical for the adults around him, is laid out clearly for the reader. And more importantly, I can remember when having a world map like that made sense. I found myself thinking about the five acres I grew up on in semi-rural Colorado and the intricate world of myth and magic I built for myself. (The fairies lived across the little stream in the meadow with the big Ponderosa pines, the Tolkein-style elves lived back in the mossier, darker woods, etc.) Inside my house was more a landscape of monsters, both mine and my brother’s. For him, Darth Vader lived in the basement shop behind the ominous wood-stove that provided most of our house’s winter heat. For me, the one spot just to the right of the hall that I always avoided because of an incredibly vivid dream wherein an invisible man picked me up off my feet by my collar and I just knew he was standing there day and night, biding his time. I had rituals about how fast I had to book it up the stairs (before the door to the garage, on its hissing automatic closer, closed with a final thump). I think everyone had at least one little ritual or piece of magical thinking in the landscape of their childhood home. I imagine many of them were much more terrifying than Darth Vader or the ubiquitous invisible man. I imagine for children with more real-world trauma in their lives daily, a great deal of ritual and magical thinking is put into trying to control the behavior of those adults or other children around them whose behavior cannot be controlled.

What Gaiman does so nicely in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is to take the magical thinking of childhood and conflate it elegantly with real magic. It’s a book about how hard it is to be seven. It’s also a book about family. It’s also a book with enough very real magic to feed the hungry child in all of us. You can check it out here or just go buy a copy. The hardback is really attractive. It’s got deckle edges, O Kindle users, which your Devices will not be able to accurately replicate. Just sayin’.

 

In the comments, please tell me a ritual or piece of magical thinking from your childhood. I’m also curious, for those of you that read it, what you thought of the book.

© 2017 Anne Bean

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑