Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

September 30, 2011

Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:38 pm

This is postapocalyptic fantasy, but very much not in the Shannara or Shadowrun sense; it’s poetic and spare, without concerning itself with European fantasy tropes or the endless codification which is the curse of so much fantasy.

Codification, indeed, is one of this book’s cores. A Great Book forms the central text of the Okeke/Nuru society in the area; the dark-skinned Okeke grew proud with their technology and their cities, and then disaster fell and the light-skinned Nuru were placed over them. Rana, the Seer, prophesies that a tall Nuru man will rewrite the book; Daib, a sorceror, decides that he is that man and begins exterminating the Okeke. On the other hand, Onyesonwu—the titular “Who fears death?” and an Ewu (child of interracial rape) sorceress—is told by her teachers that Rana had rewritten the prophecy, unwilling to believe that it really could have meant an Ewu woman. So we’re nicely set up for both plot conflict and an ambiguous look at the whole concept of prophecy & textuality.

This is echoed interestingly by Okorafor’s use of nsibidi, ideograms used in pre-Roman-script West Africa for magical & legal purposes as well as for communication. They’re inherently powerful, but they aren’t exclusively powerful, and we see throughout the book that there’s a lot of juju Onyesonwu doesn’t understand or can’t use, as well as juju she has learnt or is inherently very good at. This is no all-powerful player character wizard, and what in a European fantasy we’d refer to as a magic system (it’s neither magical nor systematic here) does not have edges or demarcations. To mix cultural metaphors appallingly, it’s a song not a topographical map.

Another (related) theme is heritage and genetic/familial determinism. Ewu are generally thought to be inherently violent, being the children of violence. That’s something that Onye repeatedly tells us isn’t true, but it isn’t particularly borne out by her actions; she’s very much Not A Nice Person. Mwita, the other Ewu we meet properly, is a child of love rather than violence, but has had a very violent past; his avocation is as a healer. It’s flatly impossible to separate any effect of birth—what in a Christian context we’d call original sin—from the toxic effects of tradition, cultural hatred, and old wounds. (This may look like a traditional African theme, but it isn’t; it happens everywhere, sadly.)

Okorafor easily resists the bog-standard “science and rationalism bad, living in harmony with the environment and intuitive magic good” approach, and undramatically weaves in realistic and useful high technology where it’s appropriate. By European fantasy standards, this is a dystopian future; coin-sized computers and weather-gel treated clothing are sold from open stalls in dusty markets, and slaves carry heavy loads along roads thronged with bio-fuel scooters. I’m rather reluctant to use the word “dystopia”, though, because that implies something that doesn’t exist already; this sort of complex intersection of technology levels, social conditions, traditional practices, and the future is already happening all over the world, and has been for quite some time.

Unsurprisingly, this book easily passes the Bechdel test; not only that, but it gives an interesting look at familial relationships between women, forcing Onye to re-evaluate her mother at the end. Another interesting—and entirely appropriate—representational issue is that there are no white people (except one, Sola, whose milk-coloured skin and flat lips mystify & repulse Onye) and no legends of white people. This is not a story of dark-skinned people emerging from a pale-skinned colonial yoke, but a story of a culture who have re-mythologized their own history.

It’s a deeply affecting book, and as you’d expect it avoids the pile of easy clichés about Africa that what little African-influenced fantasy we do see so often shows off. I’m not in any sense qualified to evaluate the book’s treatment of contemporary African issues, only to note that it exists. I’d recommend this book to anyone, with some serious trigger warnings over rape and female genital mutilation.

September 16, 2011

Towards a Hope Mirrlees Award

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 11:27 am

A brief discussion on Twitter (brief because nobody disagreed) has resulted in the conclusion that a) we need more genre awards named after women, and b) there should be one named after Hope Mirrlees.

Why? — well, to address point a), it’s pretty much universally recognized that women’s contribution to fantastika is greatly undervalued. Not enough gets to market; not enough of that gets reviewed; and not enough of that gets nominated or chosen for awards. Having almost all our high-profile awards named after men or gender-neutral objects (the Tiptree is the sole exception that springs to mind) doesn’t help this; it flags the field as one dominated by men, and for men, and that “women’s fiction” is something unique and separate and lesser.

(Just to clarify, I do think there’s something qualitatively distinct about fantastika by women, as there is about fantastika by members of other underrepresented groups. However, discussing this here would be derailing, so we can do that some other time.)

As for point b), Mirrlees is an amazing author; in Lud-in-the-Mist she produced something utterly unique and strange, fantastic in the oldest senses of the word, and something that’s rarely given the acclaim it deserves.

I propose that we (collectively) establish such an award, for fantasy published in the previous year. There are a few questions that need to be nailed down, though.

  • Eligibility: All authors, women only, or a requirement for shortlists to be more-or-less balanced? English-language, for practicality as much as anything else. Should there be a geographical restriction?
  • Prize: Realistically, there would need to be a monetary award as well as an art object. Sponsorship or donation drives should deal with that.
  • Operating requirements: eg. website design & hosting, publicity, promotional materials, fundraising overhead, ceremony costs. Quite a bit of it can be crowd-sourced or donated, but some will require actual money.
  • Judging model: jury, popular vote, or a combination of the two? The same model for the shortlist as for the final choice?
  • Mission: basically, what’s it for? To encourage good writing & inclusive publishing, or to encourage a particular style or characteristic of fantasy literature?

A lack of reliable health & energy, combined with a lack of most of the relevant skillset, means I can’t take a proper lead on this, but if anyone fancies setting up a proper committee then I’m very much in. (Also, I’m about to go away for a week and a half. But I wanted to make a proper post for discussion first.)

Fundamentally, though, this is very much doable.

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