Archive for July, 2011

Last night, I went with my husband to see the final Harry Potter film. It was good fun – we both choked up a little at various points – and a satisfying conclusion to a narrative which has saturated the popcultural zeitgeist from June 1997 to July 2011. Doubtless, the influence of and significance of the series will continue for many more years to come, but right now, I can’t help but cast an eye back on the past fourteen years and remember what the series has meant to me.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first hit the shelves in 1997, I was eleven years old – the same age as the protagonist, and, like him, just starting high school. I wish I could say I was quick off the mark, a devotee of the series from minute one, but in fact, as was doubtless the case for millions of other people, it wasn’t until the 1999 release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that I started to catch on. Which isn’t to say that I’d never heard of the series before then; even though I was unaware of their popularity, the first two books were so omnipresent that I couldn’t help but notice them. Stopping off at a grimy, tin-shack service station on the way back from a horse-riding lesson at the age of about twelve, I remember seeing the first book displayed prominently on a cardboard rack. My interest was piqued by the cover art, blurb and premise, but the location didn’t inspire confidence. Prior to that day, I’d never a book I’d want to read – or even, possibly, any book at all – on sale in a service station. Though I’d seen it proffered elsewhere, part of me wondered: what sort of book gets sold in a place like this? Unable to think of an answer, I let it be.

But in 1999, aged thirteen, Azkaban hooked me, and for a ludicrously cosmetic reason: the cover. Or, to be more specific, the hippogriff on the cover. A mythology nerd since primary school,  fantastic creatures were both a favourite obsession and a specialty area of knowledge. Unicorns and dragons, though tempting, were common – but a hippogriff? Beyond the pages of my reference books, I’d never seen one drawn before; certainly, I’d never seen them fictionalised. Throw in the fact that the book was a hardcover with a celloglazed dust jacket (I was, and always will be, a sucker for celloglaze) and on sale at a discount, and you had a match made in heaven. I didn’t even care that it was book three of a series – a fact which would paralyze me now, but which mattered much less then, despite the fact that I never got more than three chapters through any out-of-ordered read before lack of comprehension prompted me to abandon it. By all rights, I should have given up quickly, no matter how many hippogriffs there were.

Instead, I read the whole thing in an afternoon, pestered my parents for the first two volumes the rest of that week, and then, when they finally acquiesced the following weekend, I went back and read the whole story – including Azkaban – in a single, day-long session. From then on, I was hooked. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire finally came out in 2000, I bought it on the release day. I was fourteen years old, and my friend Smott – a fellow geekling, responsible in her adult incarnation for my Solace & Grief character art – was visiting for a week. We each bought a copy of the book and read it together the same day: Smott in a nest of blankets on the floor of my room, and me on my bed in the corner. I was slightly quicker, though; just as I’d reached the climatic graveyard scene, Smott exclaimed over some earlier moment, to which I snappishly replied:

‘Quiet! Harry’s fighting Voldemort!’

‘Of course he is,’ Smott said placidly, and the two of us kept reading.

It was three more years before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – a longer gap than ever before, filled with fearful suggestions that J.K. Rowling had writer’s block. By the time of its release in June 2003, I was deep in my final year of high school, grappling with exam stress, depression and the perils of being seventeen. When the Weasley twins abandoned Hogwarts, I shouted and cheered them with all the fervour of every student-reader who could only ever dream of doing likewise. Another two years passed, and by July 2005, when Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was nearing the end of my second year at Sydney University. This time, though, I had a different reading buddy. Sometime late the previous year, my then-boyfriend-Sean’s housemate – a shy philosophy student by the name of Toby – had expressed a belief that the Potter books weren’t all they were cracked up to be. The two of us were lounging around in the dim-and-dusty Coogee flat he shared with Sean, who was presently elsewhere. I asked if he’d read any of them; Toby said no, to which I replied that I would respect his opinion if he tried the series. Toby accepted my challenge. Rather than dislike the books, however, he soon became as fond of them as I was. After moving in to a new place in 2005, not only did he take to checking the Leaky Cauldron website for updates on Prince, he even turned his mother into a fan, too. Busy with work on his Masters thesis and coping with family health problems, it took Toby longer to read the sixth book than I did, but once he had, we wasted no time in swapping theories about RAB and where the final installment was headed.

By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in July 2007, Toby and I were engaged and living in Melbourne, with just two months left before our wedding. We each bought a copy from the local bookstore and read it together that same weekend. Since then, we’ve watched all the films together, whether at the cinema or on DVD.  And last night, we rounded things out with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, just one day after we returned from a trip to France to our new home in St Andrews, Scotland.

1997 – 2011. Fourteen years is a long time – long enough for a girl to grow up, change schools, fall in and out of various jobs, get married, become a published author and move continents. It wasn’t Harry Potter that brought Toby and I together, but it certainly helped, and we’ve shared those stories ever since. Come September, we’ll be celebrating our fourth wedding anniversary – and wouldn’t you know it? The appropriate gift is books.

Thanks, J. K. Rowling. For everything.

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Recently, N. K. Jemisin wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of womanhood in fantasy.  Together with Kate Beaton’s take on Strong Female Characters, Kate Elliott’s discussion of gender and culture, and Overthinking It’s analysis of why strong female characters are bad for women, the essay illuminates an increasingly problematic disjunction in our treatment of femininity. The success of feminism means that women can now choose to live beyond the confines of their traditional roles; but despite/because of that freedom, there’s a fearful sort of disparagement reserved for women who still elect to be wives and mothers, or who shoulder the bulk of domestic duties. As though, somehow, feminism has made all such occupations redundant; as though a perfectly equal society is one in which nobody ever has to get married, give birth or do the washing-up. Doubtless there’s some who’d call such a world Utopia, which is fair enough. But here in reality, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t the same as being anti-feminist, and the definition of a strong female character is not exclusively one who eschews domesticity – or love, for that matter.

Commenting on Jemisin’s post, one woman remarked:

“Sure, the romance narrative is helping sell the books, and I freely admit I eat that stuff up, but… reliance on that central romantic narrative undercuts female power pretty dramatically. The entire story basically becomes a failed Bechdel test, even if it passes technically.”

Which is another way of saying that romance in narrative is innately anti-feminist. Frankly, it’s a sentiment which terrifies and chills me, not least because of the way in which it echoes the historical discrimination against working women who dared to get married. Find a man, this logic went, and you loose your credibility: married women should be (or are, depending on your preferred flavour of sexism) incapable of devoting time, effort and intelligence to anything other than marriage itself, and therefore can’t be trusted in the workforce. The modern version is subtler. In this scenario, women shouldn’t (or don’t, depending on your preferred flavour of feminism) need men to fulfill them; positive depictions of male/female romance contradict this tenet by linking happiness with heterosexual  romance, and are therefore anti-feminist. To be clear: the overwhelming preference of our culture for embedding marriage as the standard Happily Ever After is still problematic, as is the marginalization of happy non-hetero love and the idea that singleness is always the same as loneliness. What I’m objecting to is the idea that being romantically involved with men is, by itself, enough to undermine the feminist worth of female characters.

Imagine a group of macho men disparaging love as ‘chick stuff’ and an affront to masculinity, calling their married friends pussy-whipped and questioning the manhood (not to say intelligence) of any man who changes his lifestyle for the sake of a woman; the whole ‘bros before hos’ nine yards. Ugly, right? Then imagine a group of modern women disparaging love as a means of patriarchal control and an affront to feminism, calling their married friends submissive backsliders and challenging the feminist cred (not to say intelligence) of any woman who changes her lifestyle for the sake of a man; the whole ‘housewives and breeders’ manifesto.

Yeah. Still ugly.

To wax briefly lyrical, love is the great leveler: if you don’t lose your dignity at some point during the process, then I’d contend that you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, and as treacherous an idea as it might seem to our sensibilities, loving another person does fulfill us in a way that nothing else can; nonetheless, love is not our only means of fulfillment, nor even – necessarily – the most important. Love is unique; it fascinates and enthralls. As countless narratives from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice have been at pains to point out, neither love nor loving is a weakness. Which isn’t to say that love is never destructive, ill-conceived, fleeting, hurtful, wrongheaded, violent or stubborn. It can be all that and more – but the saving grace is, it can also be exultant, glorious, unexpected and gleeful. Contrary creatures that we are, it can sometimes even be all those things at once. To quote e.e. cummings, whose wisdom in such matters is unparalleled:

‘and being here imprisoned, tortured here

love everywhere exploding maims and blinds

(but surely does not forget,perish,sleep

cannot be photographed,measured;disdains

the trivial labeling of punctual brains…’

That being said, I’m not about to issue a blanket indemnity for each and every romance ever written. Just as many real-world relationships are abusive, one-sided, airheaded and/or undertaken for all the wrong reasons, so too can narrative relationships turn toxic. The vital point here is whether the author intended the relationship to be positive or negative or somewhere in between, to what purpose, and whether or not they’ve succeeded. In this as in so many things, your mileage may vary; but more of that shortly. Assuming momentarily that adherence to feminist canon must always be the rubric by which we gauge the narrative success or failure of fictional relationships (it’s not, but that’s another post entirely), failure on that count isn’t the same thing as failure overall. By which I mean: a story which deliberately chronicles the ups and downs of a negative relationship is not automatically anti-feminist. But wait, you cry: weren’t you asserting only moments ago that positive relationships were the problem? Well, hypothetical reader, I’m glad you asked me that, because the sad fact is that some proponents of this view will have you coming and going. Negative hetero relationships are called anti-feminist because, nine times out of ten, they show women being mistreated by men, which – yes – is awful, but frequently on purpose, which is to say, the mistreatment is written deliberately to raise exactly this point; which is to say, a point that some commentators – not many, but enough to notice the pattern – persist in missing. But positive relationships are still called anti-feminist, too, because isn’t it just so contrived and backwards and cliche that a heterosexual woman might fall in love with a man, or want to? Why is it even necessary?

Look, you got me: it’s not necessary (or at least, not necessary to everyone). That doesn’t make it irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t make it unrealistic. I mean, dragons aren’t necessary, and they’re still fucking awesome – but hey, if you don’t like dragons? Maybe read a unicorn book! Or something.

This is why I get irked when novels – or more specifically, their romantic plotlines – are reviewed in line with this somewhat warped version of feminism. To directly refute the Jemisin commenter, you do not fail the Bechdel test by having your heroine fall in love, even if it’s with an awesome, powerful dude; but perhaps you do fail at writing a feminist heroine if, for whatever reason, love turns her into a doormat and her love interest into a douche without any indication that this is, in fact, suboptimal. Similarly, to play something of a strawman argument – and without wanting in any way to suggest that lesbian relationships aren’t legitimate, beautiful, awesome things – having your heroine fall in love with a lady does not automatically make her more feminist than if she falls in love with a dude; so why would heterosexuality prove a feminist handicap? So often in these debates, I feel like narrative context becomes optional in assessing a story’s merits; we get hung up on whether or not the heroine is making the same choices we would under the same circumstances when the whole point is that the story’s not about us.

Returning finally to the subject of strong female characters, then, wives and mothers of any kind are no more anti-feminist than kickass warriors in skintight leather with multiple sexual partners are the feminist ideal. Suggestions to the contrary may well be a fault of terminology; despite appearances, the strong in strong female character doesn’t refer exclusively to physical attributes, but rather to strength of character – interesting, three-dimensional ladies with a range of capabilities, backgrounds and interests being, for my money, a far more workable and compelling definition than just ladies who can fight. But then again, I’m happily married, so I guess that means my life fails the Bechdel by default.

Rats. And I felt so strong, too.

Ever since I made a conscious decision to start reading more widely, I’ve found that my definitions of genre have been shifting. To lapse briefly into metaphor, my earliest reading habits were like a stream of water that gradually wore a riverbed in the earth; but as I became more rigid in these choices, forcing myself to stick to what was known rather than breaking new ground, the flow of water lessened, confined to a muddy rut. The decision to read new things was like a drought breaking: since then, the river has been in spate, surpassing all previous limits. Which is actually a longer sort of metaphor than I’d intended, but the point is this: that the more I read across various genres, the harder it is to view them as being wholly separate, unconnected entities.

Right now, I’m fascinated by the crossover between mainstream literary novels and SFF. Several times recently, I’ve picked out popular fiction works and been surprised to discover their reliance on magic and SF elements. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderful thing. But it makes me wonder: why are these books classed as fiction, when their content is clearly fantastic? I feel like we’re missing an important taxonomy here, one that might seriously help ease the debate about Literary Fiction vs Genre – the categorical equivalent of a Missing Link. Having read The Tiger’s Wife and Chocolat in quick succession, for instance, it strikes me that in both cases, the presence of magic is simultaneously incidental and integral: incidental, in that neither story is interested in expounding on how and why it actually works; yet integral, because the emotional crux of both narratives hinges on its ability to touch ordinary lives, thereby transforming the characters and generating the plot. The same is equally true of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, both by Audrey Niffenegger, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, two of which books, in addition to Chocolat, have been turned into movies. In each of these stories, a real-world plot with a deep investment in the emotional lives of its characters has been facilitated by a fantastic premise, respectively a deathless man, a chocolate-making witch, a genetic time traveler, a persistent ghost and a girl who narrates her previous life from heaven – and yet, they’re not quite SFF, either.

What makes such stories different? Why is Erick Setiawan’s Of Bees and Mist, despite its openly fantastic blurb, shelved with fiction, while Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, despite its similar themes of family, loneliness and love, put in with SFF? What about Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus: A Novel, which has all the conventions and impossible whimsy of a fairy tale? Were YA genre novels consistently separated from their fictional fellows, one suspects that This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall would pose a similar problem to would-be pigeonholers. And yet, the more I consider such books collectively, the more it feels like they’re all of a kind – neither fiction nor SFF, but something distinct and beautiful by itself. Whatever we might term this hypothetical section of the bookshop, it wouldn’t lack for content. Taking the incidental/integral balance described above and rendering it in language more familiar to SFF discussions, what distinguishes these books from other genre titles is their disinterest in worldbuilding. By which I mean: creating a secondary, hidden layer to the everyday world – or, as in the case of Yu’s work, speculating about a not-too-distant future – is less important than the emotional development these scenarios afford. (I’m being particularly tentative about Yu’s inclusion on this list, not just because his work is shelved in SFF, but because it’s the only novel mentioned here not set in the current Real World. Nonetheless, I think it fits.) What separates them from straight fiction is the inclusion of unreality.

Despite their SFF elements, these novels are concerned almost wholly with traversing internal, emotional landscapes – the magic is there to facilitate these journeys, but stops short of being a journey in itself. This is not a bad thing, the way it might be for a poorly written genre novel, because the story is meant to stop short. Asking questions to which deeper worldbuilding might provide an answer – Why does Vianne have magic? Where does the deathless man come from? What makes Wolfboy howl? – would only detract from the rhythms of the narrative proper.  Magic here is at its purest form, resulting from the perennial what if of human imagination and leading to stories which are essentially folkloric in nature. Just as a child reading Rapunzel has no need to ask how a princess’s tears can cure blindness, so does an adult reading Of Bees and Mist have no need to wonder why Meridia’s childhood home is full of sentient fog. Asking is not the point; the people – and their situations – are.

Am I on the right track, here? If so, what might we call this nameless story-genre? If not, why? Do you agree or disagree with the books I’ve mentioned? Do you have some recommendations of your own? Come on, internets – inquiring minds must know!

Standing in what turned out to be an utterly redundant line at Edinburgh Airport this morning (we’re now in Munich!), I overheard the following exchange between a father and his approximately seven-year-old son, who were standing behind us:

Boy: What does ‘suspended’ mean?

Dad: It means to be hung upside down from your ankles. [Long pause.] No it doesn’t. It means that Mike can’t go in to work for a while.

Boy: Why not?

Dad: Because he said there were no hot chicks at the office.

Boy: [Something unintelligible I didn’t catch.]

Dad: I wouldn’t say that, no.

Boy: And then his wife will smack him! SMACK SMACK SMACK! [Proceeds to mime a double-handed face-slap with indecent glee.]

I swear this is verbatim. Internets, it took ALL MY POWERS not to laugh out loud. Or, you know, to turn around and ask, WHAT THE HELL, DUDE.

Given how well-established she is, I’m something of a latecomer to Trudi Canavan’s work. Right now, I’m in the middle of her Age of the Five trilogy, which is what’s prompted this post; I’ve also read her Black Magician trilogy, the prequel volume, The Magician’s Apprentice, and the two most recent novels in the Traitor Spy series, which is set in the same world. Full disclosure: Trudi is a friend, and a very lovely person. However, that is hardly a sufficient basis on which to recommend her work, so on the off chance that you, like me, have come late to the party, here are some more compelling reasons why you should give her a try.

One of the most omnipresent epic fantasy tropes is that of prophecy: the insinuation that moments of great social, political and magical change must always be predestined, their success contingent on the agency of either a Chosen One or a classic Five Man Band. Often, there’s a tendency for such characters to be defined by their destinies, such that the possibility of their choosing a different path is never really an option. In Canavan’s works, however, the element of prophecy is absent. The world still changes, and particular individuals often have a prominent say in how that comes about, but their success is never guaranteed, and frequently bittersweet. Instead, the emphasis falls on choice, consequences and conflicting cultures: the honest yet frightening idea that it is only ever people – unguided by higher powers – whose actions change the course of history. Often, characters are forced to question both their own traditions and those of their enemies, sans any sense of moral absolutism. In this context, change is not just an excuse to declare old systems tyrannies while lauding their replacements as infallible; rather, both characters and readers must front up to the idea that such distinctions, while instinctive and easy to make, are ultimately arbitrary.

Her conception of black magic is the perfect example of this. By using a terminology which has negative connotations not just in the world of Kyralia, but also in the minds of readers, Canavan forces us to reexamine one of the most basic biases of fantasy magic: the idea that using blood in rituals is always dark, dangerous and, by extension, morally unjustifiable. Given that black magic is an everyday part of enemy Sachakan life – and given, too, the hideous extremes to which its use is taken – it would be easy and, to a certain extent, expected that the practice itself be vilified in the narrative. Instead, the characters are forced to recognise that, no matter how distasteful they find black magic, it is not evil in and of itself – and more, that it using it may well be necessary for Kyralia’s defense.

In keeping with her emphasis on the actions of individuals, even Canavan’s most powerful characters are shown in a deliberative light, defined by the manner in which they make their choices as much as the choices themselves. There are villains, but not outright villains: no matter how opaque their motives might seem to the protagonists or how objectionable their beliefs, the enemy’s actions are always defined by culture and personality. The same is true of her heroes; nobody is infallible, and everyone makes their own decisions. In this context, ignorance and biased assumption are the greatest evils, such Canavan’s most benevolent characters are always struggling to combat them. This extends to her narrative structure, too. In both the Age of the Five and Black Magician series, the initial confrontations which lead to war are portrayed as being so shocking and violent that both characters and readers automatically align themselves against the evils of the enemy. But as the stories progress, these initial assumptions are slowly peeled back, forcing us both to understand the enemy and to reassess our own ‘side’. Similarly, despite the advent of war in both her series, healing is lauded above and beyond martial prowess. In Age of the Five, the skills of the Dreamweaver healers in the aftermath of battle prompt something of a social reconciliation with the dominant Circlians, while two of the heroines in her Kyralian series, Tessia and Sonea, dedicate their strong magical gifts towards helping the less fortunate. A strong social conscience pervades these stories. No matter how entrenched a prejudice is or how understandable in the context of that society, the narrative never condones it.

As well as encouraging cultural and social tolerance, Canavan’s stories also contain a strong element of sexual equality, both in terms of feminism and homosexuality. Her most recent novel, The Rogue, features three romances, all given equal prominence, each one concerning at least one point of view character: one male/female, one male/male, and one female/female. Similarly, her Sachakan women in The Magician’s Apprentice are shown in a deeply sympathetic light: a group of wives who, despite being controlled primarily by their husbands, have nonetheless founded an underground political movement dedicated to promoting the welfare of other, similarly restricted women and offering sanctuary to those in need. There’s a lovely naturalism to these narrative elements, and a gentleness to their execution which is nonetheless powerful. By which I mean: the characters are never defined solely by these aspects of their personalities, nor do they become crusaders. Rather, they teach by example, encouraging change by living in such a way as to prove its worth.

Couple this with a fluid writing style, memorable characters and epic plots, and you have a set of books that are well worth reading. Canavan is an intelligent, compassionate writer with a knack for crafting believable societies, cementing her characterisation through conflicts that hinge on issues of personal choice, political freedom and, above all, social change.