Friday, December 7, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About History

Only men sat here, doing important things.
The women were too busy making sure there was
a home for these guys to come home to, to make History.
This piece of amazingness came across the transom this morning Sexism in historical fantasy by Tansy Rayner Roberts, which is a response in support of this other piece of amazingness about writing historically accurate fantasy fiction that preserves the belief that what men do is important in history and what women do...not so much: The Mary Sue by Dan Wohl

Both of these articles are about issues that are very near and dear to my heart and one of the major themes in my novel, The Altar of Dead Pets. Who gets to write 'history?' What does that term mean? How do we create History out of the disparate threads of Women's history, African-American history, Native American history, Hispanic history, etc, etc etc? When do the footnotes stop being footnotes and get recognized as what they really are? The true story of how we have come to be who we are as individuals and families, as a culture, as a nation, as a species, as inhabitants of the planet Earth?

But I'll also add that the ideas expressed in those two articles aren't limited to works of historical fantasy. Even future fantasy is predicated on the same assumptions of who acts in a society and what acts matter.

When I was 13, I wrote a Star Wars novel called Children of the Force. It was 1978 (yes, I just told you how old I am, gasp), and the first movie had just come out, the second was being filmed, and I was in love with the series (fan fiction had yet to become a thing, and the Internet was still almost two decades away, unfortunately). I was in love with science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to be a SF/F writer (something that got beaten out of me when I got to college and became a creative writing major - but that's another blog post. If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've already seen it both on Word Slut and on Neil Gaiman's blog).

The novel I wrote at 13 featured a female Jedi knight as the main character. Katarra, for that was her name, had been in charge of a rebel base on a planet the Empire had invaded. It was a mad race to the rebel base to wipe the computers because something had gone wrong and files that should have been destroyed hadn't been, leaving the location of all other rebel bases vulnerable to discovery by the Empire. In the climactic scene, Katarra battles Darth Vader in the obligatory light saber dual, even taking over for Luke when he tries to be the hero and gets himself severely injured.

I still have both the original draft and the revision that I finished when I was 16. It is one of the things that sustains me when I am deep in the depths of despair about being able to complete a draft or do the revision. I did this when I was a teenager. I spent an entire summer staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning so I could write when the house was silent (boy, is that a pattern that keeps repeating in my life). But it took until I was in my 40's to realize the truth about that novel, the truth I'd known without knowing I knew it as a teenager, as a young woman, and that I'd forgotten as an adult.

In order to make a place for myself in that fantasy world with the swashbuckling Han Solo and the masculine order of the Jedi Knights (which I just knew, KNEW, was a male-only order even though, in the original movie that isn't stated - Katarra was trained in private by her father who was a Jedi Knight (okay, I'll come totally clean - her father was Obi Wan) and came to grief because she killed her brother while they were sparring with light sabers - see, secret female training of a male-only order results in grief, banishment - I knew it even as a 13 year old), in order to make a place for myself in this world that seemed to allow space for only one woman of power (in college, in the mid-80s, I heard Susan Sontag speak and she referred to this as "the dark woman" phenomena - in male-dominated spheres, such as literature, there was space for only one or two women at a time - you still see this, though to a lessening degree as the years go on, in politics, haute couture, fine cooking, etc), in order to make a place for myself in this universe, I had to create a female Jedi Knight.

Anyone who knows me, knows I am not and never have been a Princess to be rescued. And while Princess Leia was totally bad ass in that original movie and turned many of the rescued princess tropes on their ears, she was the dark woman of the Star Wars franchise (also, as an aside, of which I seem to be making many today, please note what happened to her in the course of the original trilogy - she went from being bad ass (though asexual - Lucas made Carrie Fisher bind her chest because her breasts jiggled too much in that white nuns habit she was wearing - seriously, you never noticed how much she's dressed like a nun in that movie? Go take a look) and powerful and basically taking over her own "rescue" (love that scene in the movie, "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you" "Really, what's your plan? Oh, you don't have one? Let me take that gun and get us the hell out of here.") to being a sex object. Nun to half-clad slave girl to earth mother in three movies.

But back to my original point. I was not a princes (no matter how bad ass) to be rescued. And so, I created my alter-ego as a powerful woman in her own right, someone who not only doesn't need to be rescued, but goes and rescues others and battles Darth Vader into submission. And doesn't end up as the trophy prize for some macho guy at the end. She ends up getting the forgiveness of her father and his recognition that she was every bit as worthy of the title of Jedi Knight as her brother. But, and here's the thing that really blows my mind about how smart my 13-year old self was, she doesn't need it. She knows what she is, and she knows  her value, and she knows that what she's accomplished is important and necessary for the Rebellion to continue. Katarra doesn't yell "F*CK YOU, you old white guy!" at Obi Wan's spectral figure, but neither does she fall into a mushy pile of goo now that she's gotten validation from him (For the entire novel, she pretty much thinks her father was wrong for not recognizing her own gifts and bucking the convention of a male-only Jedi order), she simply acknowledges what he's said and continues doing what she's been doing all along. Pretty much like most women do.

And back to my original original point - what those articles I linked to are talking about is not limited to just historical fantasy. Nor are they limited to fantasy either. Those of us who write what I call "legitimate" fiction (with the scare quotes) need to be careful of the same traps and conceits - reflecting the cultural conventions without questioning their legitimacy or their perpetuation is just as bad, in my humble opinion, as turning dynamic, self-assured women into half-clad slave girls chained to giant phallic slugs (or turds, I go back and forth on what I think Jabba the Hut looks like - talking penis or talking pile of sh*t).


Dan said...

This was such an inspiring post. The image of your teenage self, so committed to both someone else's story you loved (Star Wars) and your own work as well, was wonderful. As was, of course, your thoughts on gender as it related to your novel. Thank you for sharing.

Dan said...

This was such an inspiring post. The image of your teenage self, so committed to both someone else's story you loved (Star Wars) and your own work as well, was wonderful. As was, of course, your thoughts on gender as it related to your novel. Thank you for sharing.