Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Women, the "Other," Sci-Fi, and Spirituality

Speaking of Octavia Butler . . .

I was thrilled to be asked to guest post on Alma Alexander's blog. I decided, in honor of her genre of writing, to do a post on something I've been wanting to explore for some time--my passion for certain types of fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi writing. And here is the post I came up with (cross-posting from her site):

Octavia Butler once said “Every story I read practically had, as its main character, a white man who drank and smoked too much and who was about thirty. So I began writing, for my submission, about white men who drank and smoked too much and were about thirty. It’s not surprising that these were rejected.” If you want to see the video where she says this, it is here. In the same clip, Robert Silverberg says that Star Trek, with its portrayal of women characters and people of color, caused a giant leap in the readership of science fiction. In other words, people who normally were on the margins, saw a reflection of ourselves in the center.

I was first introduced to the works of women authors of science fiction in my early twenties. Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Diane Duane were among the first I read. They were presented to me as “feminist science fiction authors” at the time and, at first, they hardly registered on my radar.

I’d been writing for pretty much my whole life, but until then, I had never really thought I could write a book. And when I finally ventured to read the first book—Marion Zimmer Bradley’s THE FREE RENUNCIATES trilogy, I was enthralled. I inhaled the rest of the titles and went out in search for more. Reading the works of these women showed me that the kinds of things that moved me—stories featuring strong women and people of color, living lives they created according to their own definitions—were valuable. Books about these characters were important, and people wanted to read them. It suddenly struck me that there was a huge market for these kinds of novels. And that these novels were more than just stories . . . they were doors.

I absolutely walked through a door the first time I read WILD SEED by Octavia Butler. I fell so utterly and hopelessly in love that I changed course one hundred and eighty degrees, and have never looked back. Part of the reason her book left such a deep imprint on me is that the themes in her books, and those of the women I’ve mentioned above (as well as Marge Piercy (WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME), and the relatively newer voice of Nalo Hopkinson), is that they not only portrayed the “other” as complex, fully realized characters, but also because they explore themes of rebellion, resistance, challenge to systemic oppression . . . and spirituality.

The use of magic (as discussed on this blog in previous posts), the age-old battle of life and creativity versus death and destruction, shape-shifting, time travel, eternal life, a journey of searching, visiting other worlds . . . all of these are allegories of transcendance, re-birth, the life-death-life cycle, that colossal battle within us all for inner balance, and faith. Where else do we most commonly see these themes, other than in religious texts?

The books I read by women authors of science fiction and fantasy incorporated a spirituality that included and exalted women, honored the ancestors, and implied a reverent relationship between the self, others, the earth, and the cosmos.

Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson explicitly use spiritual imagery and reference in their works. In WILD SEED, the protagonist Anyanwu/Emma clearly adheres to her old, African ways and beliefs, even as she enters and spends centuries in slave-era America. In KINDRED, the setting of the American antebellum South depicts a different kind of spirituality: one of holding on to humanity and dignity, believing in the unknown . . . and clutching faith close. Nalo Hopkinson also uses elements of her Caribbean upbringing in her novels—BROWN GIRL IN THE RING incorporates many Caribbean Voudun rituals and beliefs into its text, and THE NEW MOON’S ARMS seamlessly threads a Caribbean spirituality into its text.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, Marge Piercy, and Diane Duane focus on the most immediate site of devotion: the Self. Their stories all involve discovery of the Self—the age old journey of moving away from the Self, wandering lost and alone and in the (symbolic) woods, then seeing the light and making one’s way back to the Self: life, death, resurrection—all using stories told with masterfully written allegory.

Science Fiction and Fantasy will never die as a genre. It speaks to everyone because it is so often about the journey we are all on: discovery. It is universal in its specificity. It is a door. And it is one that more and more women, people of color, and other “others” are walking through because, as a result of women authors and women of color authors, it is now part of the great Possible.


Anonymous said...

I've always loved authors like Tony Morrison, Niki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou. But it wasn't until 2004 when I stumbled across an advanced review copy of Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads, The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust, and a battered old copy of Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston all at about the same time and saw how non-European traditions connected to SF literature. It was a like a lightening bolt: Fantasy doesn't have to be Celtic or Greek-based. In fact, I felt a distinct urgency to move past those tropes.

But what's a 30-something white guy to do?

Neesha Meminger said...

LOL! Hmm, I guess the answer to your question might be: let your imagination run unfettered; do a lot of research; write, sell, write, sell...and give back in whatever way/s you can?

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