Fri, Jun. 3rd, 2011, 01:49 pm || Wiscon 35: Where Is the Indigenous American Fantasy?

add to memories

Why is American fantasy so Eurocentric? If you believe our fantasists, American cities are populated with imported Romanian vampires, Russian werewolves, Celtic faeries, Nordic gods, Germanic witches, and the (very) occasional African god or Arabic djinn, but scarcely a homegrown magical being to be found. In fact, indigenous magical beings abound in the Americas and their stories of magic, wonder and horror are widely told by spoken and written word. North American mythology is rich with magical beings. Do these stories get adequate air time? Is it easier to imagine an Old World teeming with supernatural beings than to visualize a North America enchanted with indigenous mythical beings? Is it difficullt to believe that we live in a naturally magical place? And if we did, what would it look like?
Theodora Goss (mod), Valerie Estelle Frankel, LJ Geoffrion, Andrea D. Hairston, Katherine Mankiller, Georgie L. Schnobrich


This is an assembled summary of what I remember from the panel sans notes; as such, attribution will be very hazy. Please let me know when I get something wrong! I am also inserting a lot of my own commentary in here.

This wasn't the best panel I went to this Wiscon, and it was very problematic at points, but it's also the panel that I've been turning over most in my head so far.

I wasn't even sure I wanted to attend this panel, given the description—I think American fantasy is so Eurocentric not because we (and who is this "we" anyway?) have a difficult time visualizing a magical North America, but because US history has so thoroughly tried to overwrite and destroy non-European peoples' histories and heritages. The question the panel poses makes it sound as though fantasy just happens to be that way, and while I read no malice into the act, I also think the causes are systemic and global and not some fascinating quirk of (white) US fantasy authors. I was pretty sure Andrea Hairston (ADH) would be interesting and non-faily, but didn't know much about the other panelists. I nearly left early on, except I saw Moondancer Drake and Diantha Day Sprouse in the audience and figured that at least if things started to go faily, several people would be trying to pull the panel back on course.

I was further dismayed with Theodora Goss (TG)'s introduction; she noted that she most definitely did not have the background to be on the panel, being someone who still remembered her first look at the US out of a plane window when she was a child and having written much fantasy influenced by her Hungarian heritage. (The dismay was preliminary, since I am very tired of conversations about European-descended people debating what constitutes "American." I think TG did a good job moderating in the end.) Valerie Frankel (VEF) had researched many mythologies to write her book on the hero's journey, including that of various indigenous peoples. LJ Geoffrion (LJG) has written works incorporating beliefs from around the North Midwest, and although her family tree very early on notes an ancestor married "an Indian named Jane," she said that her family history had been very insistent about the lack of Indian blood and the erasure of that history. ADH said that although her own family history spoke of Native ancestry, there was no documentation or way to be certain. Georgie L. Schnobrich (GLS) went back to the "My ancestors [from Europe] have been here for generations, but do we count as 'American'?" Katherine Mankiller (KM) also identified as Native.

I say I don't care about this question because I feel so much dialogue about USians centers around European-descended people feeling somehow inauthentic as USians and vaguely guilty about not being Native American, and quite honestly, I am sick of that as the focus on the "who is USian" debate. Because much as European-descended people angst about this issue, when most people (USian or not) say "American," they almost always think of a White American. Not only that, but it's much easier to assimilate when you look white. Obviously, this is complicated, and assimilation carries just as many negatives as it does privileges, but I feel being white and American leads to a very different set of "Who is USian" problems than people who are brown and read as perpetual foreigners.

ADH began by saying she thought the answer to the question of the panel title was easy: colonization! KM also agreed. ADH also mentioned that she wanted talk about the lines between "mythology" and "religion" and would instead rather say "stories about people's relationships to the cosmos," largely because "mythology" carries the implication that the belief system is no longer in practice and up for grabs for whoever wants to write about it. VEF said that the mythology vs. religion discussion could go on forever and belonged in a textbook. I rose my hand and commented that I was actually very happy that the panel was looking at the two terms, since I thought labeling things as "mythology" vs. "religion" was a tool that colonizers used to discredit and overwrite the colonizeds' belief systems.

I felt a lot of the panel consisted of ADH, MK, and LJG talking about various Native stories from different nations and regions and the potential for great fantasy stories there. GLS would occasionally interject by saying that [some] authors felt very nervous about using Native stories because they were afraid of getting it wrong. I think KM countered by saying that authors being afraid of getting it wrong doesn't mean they shouldn't try, and also that an awareness of the amount of harm perpetuated on oppressed peoples is much more important than being afraid of failing. Panelists also noted the stereotype of the stoic Indian looking over his (usually his! and not hers or hir) dying nation with a single noble tear on his face, or the magical Indian mentor passing on the old ways to white people to graciously accede to them.

I forgot what the panelists said, but something sparked enough so I asked about fantasy involving not only Native American peoples, but also American fantasy that includes all the people who are traditionally excised from narratives, such as black slaves and Asian laborers, and had a very general thought on how a lot of what we think of as "American" fantasy still doesn't have that much from those Americas. I think I also recced Jeremy Love's Bayou and critiqued Gaiman's American Gods for somehow assuming that the gods coming over with immigration somehow stopped after the 1800s or something. Sorry, this recollection is very me-centric because I took no notes. I think this is when someone mentioned that Grace Dillon was working on an anthology titled Indigenous Futures, which sounds awesome. ADH talked about how she hated the term "pre-Colombian" and the myth of America as an empty continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and the panelists and audience talked a bit about which nations had been decimated by disease when colonizers arrived and how that directly corresponded with whose stories got told and remembered and kept.

ADH, MK, Moondancer, Diantha, and LJG all mentioned that the scarcity mentioned in the panel description is not a scarcity of writers, but rather, partially due to the gatekeepers. ADH talked about how her Redwood and Wildfire, about a Seminole Irish man and a Black woman, was met with a lot of "We do not understand your characters. What is the audience for this?" when she was shopping it around. I think Moondancer also talked about the pushback she got about her own fiction. People also shared anectdotal evidence of other people trying to shop around books that have Native protagonists and the difficulty of doing so. ADH also talked about syncretism in many African-American religions.

And given what we see being published and what was being recced by VEF and GLS as "American fantasy," I wouldn't be surprised if the anecdotal evidence is just the tip of the iceberg of a general chilling effect on the industry regarding books starring characters who might fit into more than one "oppression box." VEF and GLS mentioned OSC's Alvin Maker series (white protag), Charles de Lint (Native protag?), Mercedes Lackey's Diana Tregarde books (Native protag?), and Emma Bull's Territory (white and Jewish protags). I'm a bit amazed and thankful that Mammothfail didn't get mentioned until the very end of the panel.

I can't remember who talked about it, but I remember people mentioning the ghost stories that might surround things like the Indian boarding schools or Black slave quarters or Chinese migrant workers on the railway. This is around when I started doodling around in my head; there are all these stories that are almost all untold because they star people who don't fit into the "who is USian" narrative, and here we are at a panel asking why these stories aren't there, as if that negative space were an accident. As if it were just chance that most of the "big name" (or at least bigGER name) books are by white people and were being recced by white people. ADH also mentioned Louise Erdrich and Tony Hillerman as people working outside the fantasy genre but with fantasy elements, and the panel briefly talked about magical realism vs. fantasy. Another audience member talked about Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer as well. (And I wish I talked about Drew Hayden Taylor, but I felt I was already talking way too much from the audience. And now I wish someone mentioned Colson Whitehead.)

Most of the discussion was focused on the US, although the panelists mentioned that "North America" alone is very broad.

I kept thinking about this as the discussion went on to "modern" "American" mythology. GLS talked about how many traditions have twin gods and how there could be a very interesting fantasy about the twin gods of the road and the automobile. The panelists also talked about urban myths as the new American mythology, from "the chicken at KFC isn't real chicken!" to alligators in the NY sewers and Mythbusters. An audience member brought up the myth of capitalism and the invisible hand, and how there could be some very interesting fantasy written around that.

I admit that I was getting very antsy by then, partially because I've heard discussions before on what constitutes "modern American mythology" and the "new American gods" and things like Gaiman's take. My general take on it is that it's a way for white American people to feel like they have a mythology and contributes to the fiction of white people having no culture and all the brown people having their strange, wonderful, magical traditions. There's this unspoken sense of generality in the attempt to find "modern American mythology" that bothers me, because it is an attempt to be inclusive without trying to acknowledge and right the way different peoples and cultures have been excluded from "American mythology."

I also felt like there was an elephant in the room, in which USian history is the modern American mythology. I think everyone was kind of skirting around that, but I really wanted someone to say it so people could talk about it, and this is where I came up with my weird idea that maybe we cannot have very "American" fantasy precisely because people still don't deconstruct the mythology of USian history as much as they could. I do think that there have been and still are deconstructions of the Wild West and the frontier and etc., but what I really want is something like Octavian Nothing and how it tears apart the mythology of the War of Independence and the Founding Fathers. I think these deconstructions are there, but I suspect they are not common precisely because they make a lot of people uncomfortable and lead to the "But if my ancestors came from Scotland generations ago, we really aren't very Scottish anymore! We are American too!" discussion. Because deconstructing the mythology of USian history includes deconstructing the mythology of immigration and Ellis Island and the US as a melting pot.

Like I said, I think this deconstruction exists, but it's frequently much less pointed than I want it to be, and it sometimes ends up sidelined in the fantasy plot. People have said that the power of Octavian Nothing is that it is history, not sf (which I totally agree with), though I think it reads like sf to me in parts because it's tearing down the worldbuilding in many people's heads. I think that was why I was so frustrated about attempts to pin down "modern American mythology," because those attempts don't acknowledge the massive myth so many people do believe, Democracy and Immigrant Nation and Our Country 'Tis of Thee and Rugged Individualism, where slavery and the Trail of Tears and Indian boarding schools and anti-Muslim sentiment and food deserts and AIM and Black Power and "illegals" and etc. have roles in the narrative, are given chapters in the history books and acknowledgement in alternate histories, but they are not THE narrative. Because colonization and genocide and enslavement are almost always shown as the "dark side" of history, but not as history itself.

Anyway, that is my massive OT side thought inspired by the panel, and now I want to know where that USian fantasy is. Rec me stuff! [personal profile] coffeeandink mentioned Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary, Louise Erdrich, and Terry Bisson' Fire on the Mountain, as well as Laurie Marks' Elemental Logic series as not a direct take on US history, but as reflecting many themes about colonization. I feel Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots kind of does this, but not as cohesively as I would like. I am not specifically sure what I am looking for, but something about how the mythology of USian history directly results in all the "dark side" narratives, and not just that, but how they are tied together, like how the War of Independence went hand-in-hand with declaring people's (but only some people!) right to property as a freedom, how oppressions are often framed as "unfortunate side effects" when those very oppressions are built right into the US's history.

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