Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 1, 2011

The asymmetry of erasure

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 7:59 pm

(Or: some further thoughts on Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.)

The author tweeted that I’d pointed out something few others had, that there were almost no white people and no legends of white people. It took me rather aback that few others had noticed this, but I suppose that’s normal for white reviewers; erasure isn’t at all symmetrical.

Non-white readers have to deal with erasure, invisibility, non-representation, in almost everything they read. When people with their skin tones and facial features (for race in Who Fears Death is much more subtle and complex than skin colour, as you’d expect from an author who lives real differences, not paintbox differences) do appear, they’re often thin and stereotypical caricatures of real people. There’s a lot of discussion here and there about whether that’s better or worse than outright erasure, but not only is that out of my text but I don’t think there’s any general answer at all.

White readers, on the other hand, have the dual luxuries of plentiful, complex, nuanced representations (and internally sketched representations at that, of white people by white people for white people; an endless conversation with themselves) and of a perceptual default, colonizing not only their own territory but the neutral, unmarked territory too. An undescribed character is, in the absence of any crashingly obvious clues, assumed to be white; there’s always more white people in the next book along; and the whole trajectory of history as white people are taught it tends towards whiteness, exaggerating the differences between white ethnicities into story-defining oppositions. Which, to be fair, they are… within the sometimes quite parochial bounds of those stories. But there have been a great many non-white people erased from British history, and that’s never justified. Many of them are still there to be rediscovered (the sheer mass of data means that many are only buried in archives, rather than scoured away; many others are only conjecture or conclusion) but it still grates having to work at finding oneself there.

For white readers, on the other hand, seeing ourselves erased from a text can be rather fun; it’s a sort of mild, transgressive, dislocatory feeling, like draping a sheet over your head and running down the street as a ghost. In fact, it’s a very good thing, because there really are so very many stories in the world that don’t involve us; very few people are telling us not to read them (with the exception of some tribe- or culture-specific ritual practices & histories) and when you’re used to having privileged access to narratives, it’s good to have that changed about, to be knocked off the top of an ontological pole and sent sprawling to look up at a story dark against the stars.

1 Comment »

  1. DAMN that’s good!

    Comment by Eve — October 2, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

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