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.

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.

February 10, 2010

Quick links: whitewashing in YA fiction

Filed under: meta,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 9:27 pm

Two links for you – The narrative we’re told/sold over again by Chally at Feministe, and Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing by Colleen Mondor at Bookslut.

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