Saturday, March 19, 2011

books, book-talk, and race

Terri, I'm sorry, this will probably give you another book to read--but it's a very fast read!

So, I recently finished Half World, by Hiromi Goto, a sorta-local author (lives on the mainland), book trailer for which can be seen here. The back-cover copy reads:
As the unpopular and impoverished only child of a loving but neglectful mother, she is just barely coping with school and life. But everything changes on the day she returns home to find her mother is missing, lured back to Half World by a vile creature calling himself Mr. Glueskin. Soon Melanie embarks on an epic and darkly fantastical journey to Half World to save her mother. What she does not yet realize is that the state of the universe itself is at stake....
Award winning author Hiromi Goto's novel is an adventurous, genre-bending fantasy of shape-shifting characters, tortured half-lives, and redemption.

Wow. This book moves at a dead run. There are two prologues, one distant past and one recent past. The first is a pared-down legend-backstory, but the second is grab-reader-by-throat.
Then the story proper begins, as Melanie's mother goes missing, and she gets a phone call (on a disconnected phone) from the deeply-creepy Mr. Glueskin telling her what she has to do if she ever wants to see her mother again. Because the reader has already encountered Mr. Glueskin in the second prologue, this is even creepier than Melanie knows.
Melanie makes a believable young heroine, sometimes frustrated and overwhelmed, sometimes hasty and resentful, but always picking herself up and 'doing what's nearest'. She has no special powers, only determination and a loving heart--a refreshing change from the YA heroines who are billed as kickass tough girls but are passive and helpless when the crunch comes. (And hoorah, she is a chubby kid and does not become magically thin-and-pretty by the end of the story.)
The horrors she faces in Half World aren't cheap blood-splatter special effects, but subtler and weirder. I thought there was an influence both of the Japanese ghost scrolls and of the Buddhist hells, and maybe also Stephen King's Overlook Hotel, which is to say, pretty damn creepy.
So yeah, if you haven't read this book already, you should go and read it.

You can guess, thus, that when I heard Hiromi Goto was delivering the keynote talk at a conference at the university where I work, I knew I'd have to be there. Even if not for myself, for the others on the book-chat forum who'd read her work.
The conference info is here. Curious, If True: The Fantastic in Literature.
I would have liked to attend the whole thing, but I was booked already to leave Friday for a medieval event in Bremerton where I'd be taking a new apprentice--not something one can reschedule easily. And Hiromi's talk was the highlight.

After some to-ing and fro-ing to find out about registration, which turned out to be on the other side of campus, but which I didn't really need to deal with anyways because I wasn't speaking, just listening, but let me be useful in walking one of the real attendees over to find the secret hidden building he needed, I was in place with coffee and snacks and a copy of Half World in good time. Here's my notes, filled in and cleaned up. Anything incoherent or wonky is due to my errors of transcription and memory.

The title of her talk was: "Escape Procedures May Not Have Been Designed To Your Specifications: Some Thoughts on Race and Representation in the Literature of the Fantastic"

Hiromi Goto is a small compact woman with fairly short grey hair and a face either smiling or seeming about to smile. She is very present, almost concentrated, in the space she occupies (I'm not sure if that's a clear explanation). She spoke from written notes, at first with her eyes on them, gradually more confidently and with less referring. She began by acknowledging that this was the territory of the Coast Salish peoples, and thanking them in Japanese for allowing her there.
The spark for her talk was the not-too-long-ago kerfuffle over the filming and whitewashing of the Earthsea books. Having read the books in her youth, Hiromi's first reaction to the fuss was 'wait, Ged's not white?' Then she was embarrassed: at a time when she was reading avidly and hungrily for characters like her, (enough that she was thrilled and touched by the Chinese character in A Cricket in Times Square, only later recognising him as stereotypical), how could she have missed that Ged was not another white character?
In part because she applied the author's race to the characters. In part because of the author's conscious decision to provide the physical clues gradually, to get the (possibly-resistant white) reader into Ged's skin before noticing that said skin was brown. And in part because the clues about the culture of the islands of Gont (bronze-smithing, goat-herding, witch-women, women's magic being 'rubbish and humbug', dragons) were not sufficient to mark it as a non-European culture for her.
A distinct race (like the Karg?) will be set against a 'normative' race. Readers within a culture that has a dominant race will assume that the unspecified is the dominant. The attempt to envision and write for a 'universal reader' erases difference and homogenizes, which ends up being exclusive rather than inclusive.

Pause to describe the concept of umwelt (German, the surrounding world), the perception of the world related to oneself, through constructions of one's body, education, desires, past. The understanding of the world can be very different even by organisms that are quite similar. A meadow will be understood differently by a fieldmouse, a hawk, and a farmer, and different again by a second farmer. No one umwelt is correct or dominant, each is true for the one within it. Neither is that understanding fixed. One's self alters within different contexts, one isn't a neutral subject. She compared this shifting and altering to the altering of perceptions in optical illusions where foreground becomes background.
Goto's family came to Canada when she was three. She remembers English being incomprehensible babble to her ear, and remembers text moving from incomprehensible to meaningful as she learned to read. As she read, she didn't at first notice the absence of 'people like her', only as she encountered the few that existed in fiction did she become aware of the lack.

Representing diverse races and cultures requires complexities, and the necessities of narrative prune away complexity. Thought must be put into the complexities of race: what effect does it have? The markers of race include colour, hair, language, cultural practices and religion. Not all of these will have space in the narrative, but there is more to representing diversity than providing different skin colours.
LeGuin diversified sf/f, but race is more than skin colour. Goto considers Always Coming Home to be the more effective treatment of race. She uses the term Terra Racialliblendedis to refer to the setting where everyone is mixed or non-white but there are no differences in culture or custom, even in food, and cites The Hunger Games as an example. Given the near-future setting, it's implausible that racial and regional differences could have been subsumed so completely into class differences.
Race is inextricable from political discourse: multiculturalism, immigration, economics etc. Racial narratives can be deadly; she gives the example of the black man seen as criminal. Brown bodies in literature have been locked in the attic or the kitchen, or banished to jungles and forests for exotic background.
Sf/f provides room to imagine different worlds and futures, but setting the brown body in a supposedly post-racial world and flattening the differences inherent in race and culture presents its own problems. Fantastic literature can push at the boundaries of comfort, but is read by the reader within her own social context / umwelt. The reading of the fantastical other is the reading of one's imagined self.

We cannot escape our context, even reading for escape, but we can dismantle, small step by small step, and move toward a place where escape is no longer desired.

After her talk, there was some time for questions. A couple of questions asked on how to represent other cultures respectfully, and what would affect your decision on whether to use one culture rather than another. She suggested (to a question that came perilous close to whining about touchiness) that peoples need space / chance of their own representation, that it may be appropriative to make use of a culture that hasn't had experience of its own (representational) space yet.
The concept that struck with me was 'narrative prunes away complexity' and since I'd recently read a Quill & Quire review of Half World, where the reviewer regretted that the story spent so little time on Melanie's life before the crisis, and wanted more time spent on the world and how it worked, I asked whether much had been pruned from Half World.
Answer being yes - that an earlier draft had been probably 400 pages, and the last was less than 200 (not sure if that's mss or printed - the pbk is 233 p.). The present opening scene of ch.1 was originally ch. 15 or 16. Much was pruned out by the pressures not only of narrative but of market considerations and the intended audience.

Then I had to run away back to work, and was unable to stay for the readings and panel discussions. But I did get a copy of Half World signed, and found out where I can buy her other books (the university bookstore - have not found them at the local indies.).


Terri-Lynne said...

Barbara!!! You are so bad to me!!! Of course I must add this to my pile.

That tears it--I'm still going to be reading down my TBR pile five years after I'm dead.


batgirl said...

You must live forever - it's the only answer!

Terri-Lynne said... where did I put that spellbook???