elsane: clouds, brilliance, and the illusion of wings. (Default)
(oh jeez, I really should be working, but, well, this seemed important.)

I really like Jo Walton. I really like Pat Wrede. It is thus with a sinking feeling of "oh, no", that I read Jo Walton's description of Wrede's latest book, here:
This is an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical.

I read that description and I stopped dead in my tracks. How can one even imagine creating "American fantasy" without Native Americans? How can one possibly disentangle the mythology of the American frontier from the steady drumbeat of encroachment, threat, and loss? The story of the American frontier is not, cannot be made a story only of human vs nature. This is only an alternate version of "our" world with a very narrow understanding of the pronoun.

I completely understand wanting to have alternatives to the generic and soulless pseudo-medieval European
settings that constitute a depressing percentage of the fantasy genre. But a wholesale removal of a continent full of cultures is hardly the way to build a world.

The problem with "American fantasy" -- historic American fantasy, let's call it, as distinct from modern urban fantasy -- is that American history cannot honestly be separated from genocide and slavery. To ignore these ugly aspect of our national heritage, or to create a world where this original sin can be wished away, keeps only a part of the story, and feels fake. Any story which aspires to be emotionally true, artistically honest, has to acknowledge and mythologize the darkness as well as the light.

As fantasists we want to read and write stories where good goes up against evil and wins, or at least tries very hard. Fantasy also has an urge towards epic, wanting at least a suggestion of an epic in the backdrop, if not a big one straggling across foreground -- Wrede's worldbuilding, as I understand it from Walton's post, has this sort of big story in the background, an overarching narrative, because history as told is narrative, between human and unconquered continent.

The "American epic" latent in the history taught in American schools and the family stories handed down by (white) American relatives, is that of Manifest Destiny, cowboys and continents and the virtuous frontier. This is the raw material that's handed to white Americans by our cultural history. Sure, it's better to use this raw material to create a world where the original sins of the USA are erased than it is to try to mythologize our own history, in our own world. But it can never be real, in the sense that myths can be real. You can't deal with slavery and genocide by closing your eyes and wishing it away.

I know the kind of American fantasy I want to read. I want to know what happened in those alternative worlds where the Native Americans had different immune complexes and their civilizations survived the first contact with European settlers. I want to read stories set in the thriving, complex societies of Dawnland and Cahokia, in the glittering sophisticated cities of the Aztecs, about the Incas at war, or the less well-known cities in the deep Amazon, cities built up in great and verdant mounds, connected by roads that ran for miles, perfectly straight. I want to read the histories of these people, I want adventures with qipu and llamas, or jaguars and jade; wetu and canoes and the sun rising beyond the waves; the thousands of stories this continent could have held.

Anyone interested in American fantasy should go read 1491.

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elsane: clouds, brilliance, and the illusion of wings. (Default)
elsane

May 2017

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