Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Safe Stories in Long Hidden

I started this post a bunch of times, and kept getting bogged down.  And then the Hugos happened, and Kameron Hurley's "We Have Always Fought" won (deservedly) and I re-read it (you should to), and I stopped focusing on arguing about the place of women in wars (not really the point, and the fact that I was focusing there showed I was missing the point), and instead started focusing on llamas and the way they're written about versus how we actually experience them (hint, not actually about llamas).  And then I realized that not only had I re-read a darn good (and award winning!) essay, but also I could lean on Kameron for this piece.

So let's take as a given that stories give us a lens to look at the world, and that sometimes the lens of story can be as influential as our actual experiences, particularly when we don't have a lot of firsthand experience.  And if you don't want to take that as a given, then maybe go read "We Have Always Fought", don't argue with it like I did, and then come back here.  I'll also drop some more links at the bottom.

Long Hidden is an anthology of stories from the margins of history.  (Have I mentioned you should buy it?) Many of those stories are about experiences and histories that I have very little firsthand exposure to, and haven't even read much about.  One of the things I'm most grateful to the authors and editors for is creating a safe space to read these stories.  I don't have to go in with my guard up, looking for a Magical Negro, Damsel in Distress or other damaging stereotypes, but could instead open myself up to unfamiliar experiences.  Two stories in particular really created a safe space for me: The Witch of Tarup and A Score of Roses.  (Witch of Tarup discussed first, with few spoilers, Score of Roses second with all the spoilers).

In The Witch of Tarup, there are a number of characters with physical disabilities.  Some permanent, some temporary.  Traditionally, disabled characters tend to be portrayed as either bitter and angry or else fonts of wisdom who transcend their disability.  Either way, they are defined by that disability.  The Witch of Tarup features neither.  The disabled characters fit into their story and community.  They need assistance at times, but can function with their disability, and are defined by their other characteristics and other ways they've fit into the community.  The story was one of my favorites from the anthology simply in the way it spun out and revealed the very touching conclusion, but also because it gave me a safe space to think about disability as a part of the whole person, rather than the defining characteristic.

Troy Wiggins' A Score of Roses also provides a safe space to tell a story too often negatively stereotyped in both fiction and media.  (Spoilers ahead!)  The two characters in 1870's Memphis are clearly identified as members of the black community by the use of African American Vernacular English (since I had to look up AAVE when I first saw it), but also as non-human spirits.  Together they fall in love, court, raise a child, and the mother (at least) leaves the family.  It is, viewed baldly, a story about what could be described as a broken family, where the child is growing up with only one parent present, the other absent with no clear indication when or if she'll return.  But mostly it's an incredibly tender story about parents falling in love and passing on their strength and identity to their children.  I did not, at all, get the sense from A Score of Roses that the family was broken in any way.  Instead I found myself smiling at the affirmation of strength and love that the characters had for each other.  It was only reflecting afterwards that I realized Troy was threading a needle by telling a story about strength and love in a family situation so often demonized or characterized as broken.  A Score of Roses may not all by itself tear down all of my preconceptions about what family means, but it certainly highlighted some of the ways those preconceptions are dangerous, flawed, and created by narratives.  (Scaly llamas!)

(After re-reading A Score of Roses, I've also remembered what a simply beautiful story it is.  Unfinished: a more detailed response to A Score of Roses by itself, because I have done this story an injustice by only bringing up the way it presents a nontraditional family in a safe, loving and supportive way).

Many of the stories in Long Hidden create safe spaces in one way or another, or challenge the stereotypes that other narratives have created.  I'm grateful to the authors and editors for doing so in a respectful way, and providing me a space to read stories that may make me uncomfortable, but also always challenged and rewarded me.  It's an incredible anthology.

If "We Have Always Fought" wasn't enough for you, more resources on the way our worldview is shaped by narrative, and some of the dangers that entails:
MedievalPOC, which shows how people of color have been removed from our view of medieval and early modern european society.
Nnedi Okorafor on The Magical Negro
Mary Robinette Kowal on writing the stereotype of the "psychotic half breed" while trying to combat other stereotypes
Ta-Nehisi Coates' point that Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns blows up the myth that black ghettoes were caused by illiterate broken families migrating to the north
Ann Leckie on restaurants that do (or don't) punch people in the face.  (Again, not really about restaurants)

Edited to correct title of The Witch of Tarup

Unfinished -
Review of A Score of Roses

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