[In its debut year, Neesha Meminger's first book, Shine, Coconut Moon, a contemporary young adult novel, made the Top 100 Books for Teens on the New York Public Library's Stuff for the Teen Age list, and the Smithsonian list of Notable Books. Her second novel, a sci-fi YA, is forthcoming. She also has two paranormal romance novels out under a pseudonym, and a third under contract. --ed.]
"Sometimes I am asked what I do in my consulting room to help women return to their wildish natures. I place substantial emphasis on clinical and developmental psychology, and I use the simplest and most accessible ingredient for healing--stories."
-- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from Women Who Run With the Wolves , Ballantine Books, 1996
Someone once said that we live and die in the stories and mythologies we create. All cultures thrive on folklore, legends, myths, and archetypes. While storytellers in indigenous communities of the past were often elders, passing down the history of their people through an oral tradition, some of the most potent storytellers and myth-makers of our time are the Walt Disneys, the MGMs, the Universal Studios, Warner Brothers, etc. The stories they churn out tend to follow the single story trope, particularly as it relates to anyone who falls outside the margins.
Women have fought to claim a voice in the stories and mythologies that were, initially, created only by men. In fact, it’s arguable that women are still struggling to find an authentically female voice within the confines of these male-authored mythologies; a uniquely female vision which elevates inter-connection over individualism, negotiation over domination, and a value system that puts human life and the life of our planet above profits.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her best-selling book, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, notes that, “Sometimes various cultural overlays disarray the bones of stories. For instance, in the case of the brothers Grimm (among other fairy-tale collectors of the past few centuries), there is a strong suspicion that the informants (storytellers) of that time sometimes ‘purified’ their stories for the religious brothers’ sakes. Over the course of time, old pagan symbols were overlaid with Christian ones, so that an old healer in a tale became an evil witch, a spirit became an angel, an initiation veil or caul became a handkerchief, or a child named Beautiful (the customary name for a child born during Solstice festival) was renamed Schmerzenreich, Sorrowful. Sexual elements were omitted. Helping creatures and animals were often changed into demons and boogeys.
“This is how many women's teaching tales about sex, love, money, marriage, birthing, death, and transformation were lost. It is how fairy tales and myths that explicate ancient women's mysteries have been covered over too.”
Along the same lines, people of colour, LGBTQ folk, the working class, and other marginalized voices are often squeezed out of the narrative—lightened, white-washed, dismissed (as in “they don’t buy books”, “there is no market”, “these types of books don’t sell”), diluted, homogenized, etc. when it comes to creating the myths, legends, and archetypes of our time. And it absolutely has an impact on the psychology of our young people.
Ibi Zoboi, a Haitian writer of fantasy and sci-fi, recently blogged this: “I [try] to keep back the tears ’cause I get all emotional when I’m hit with the reality that my kinfolk and their stories are not valued, are not deemed marketable or profitable, or readable, or relatable.”
Hiromi Goto, Japanese-Canadian author of the young adult novel Half World, notes that, “To my mind, stories are not 'just entertainment' (although I believe that in order to function they must, on a certain level, entertain successfully). Stories become part of our thinking, our learning, our knowing. […] How much more necessary, then, that children and youth find their diverse subjectivities reflected in the characters that they read, how much more necessary that dreams, myths, the magical depict children of colour, aboriginal children, metis children.”
My children have come home from school asking, “Mommy, didn’t brown people invent *anything*?” I have to tell them that yes, of course we did. We just aren’t likely to read about it in the current curriculum of assigned texts or in newspapers and magazines. And we most definitely won’t see it on television or in the movies, because those stories come from the imaginations of a handful of the heavily privileged who position themselves, their perspectives and ideologies, and their values at the very center of our global reality. In her book, THE GODDESS: Power, Sexuality, and the Feminine Divine, author and psychotherapist Shahrukh Husain states, “In modern goddess worship, the construction of a glorious female past, however historically inaccurate, is seen as a legitimate exercise in fantasy and myth-making for the purpose of self-empowerment – a role that myth and the power of the imagination have played since the dawn of human consciousness.”
So, in essence, it seems to go something like this: mythology shapes psychology which then shapes reality. Stories/mythology/archetypes → psychology → reality. This means that stories have tremendous power. Now, think of the stories around you – told in film, television, books, music videos, fairy tales, religious texts, magazines, commercials, billboards, etc. What are the mythologies being created? What are the *realities* being created?
It’s almost impossible to speak of stories, folklore, mythologies, archetypes and legends without also looking at the concept of heroes and sheroes. We have seen many, many thousands of stories where the hero is male. And here, in North America, we’ve seen a white male hero in almost all of them. In more recent history, we’ve seen the emergence of the “kickass” female shero. All too often, this female follows predefined, tried-and-true tropes in the pursuit of her goal; or, worse, she is an insipid shero – valorized for her neediness and inaction, and awaiting rescue at the hands of a male love interest.
In the introduction of David E. Jones’s Women Warriors: A History , he writes about one of his observations as a teacher of a Japanese martial art, “Year after year I observed in my classes women who seemed in some mysterious way to have been robbed of their natural right to a sense of bodily dignity and strength. Whereas males could relate to my martial demonstrations, gradually assuming the correct posture and understanding force and ‘command presence,’ women often seemed to move through a maze of conflicting factors that the men did not face to achieve the fighting technique I was teaching. In some ways they had to ‘become male’ to perform the technique.” He goes on to say, “I concluded that one of the reasons for these variations, perhaps THE reason, relates to male conditioning for generations to their warrior heritage. To think warrior in the Western tradition is to think male. For example, Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines warrior as ‘a man [author’s emphasis] engaged or experienced in warfare…”
“The ideals of a culture,” he writes in the next paragraph, “a people’s deepest sense of what is right and true, are expressed in traditional verbal formulae (morals, proverbs, myths, etc.). Embedded in a society’s institutions, they are represented by historical heroes revered by the culture.”
Contrast this with fairy tales of princesses awaiting rescue, falling in love at first sight with princes who will whisk them away, and you have girls who are taught not to be warriors, and thus protectors, but to sit and wait for a protector or rescuer. Estes notes that, “Stories are medicine... They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything--we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories . . . Stories are embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life.” If myths, stories, and fairy tales offer a guide and instructions for life, the ones currently creating mass, popular media are blinding the public, especially young and malleable minds, to the whole picture.
Stories of the shero who does not spend her days yearning for a male love interest, or the shero who rescues herself (and the world!) by acting in accordance with values which elevate the power of collective action, engaging the spirit, and using the power of negotiation (even if it is in addition to her skill in combat and sword-wielding like her male counterparts) are rare. But not non-existent.
There is room for such female sheroes within the pages of sci-fi/fantasy novels and speculative fiction. Ursula K. Leguin, Marge Piercy, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Octavia Butler are just some of the names that come to mind when I think of sheroes re-creating and re-shaping their worlds. These authors, and others before and since, re-imagined worlds based on feminist, anti-racist, pro-LGBTQ values. They challenged current tropes and systems in their narratives and offered visions for new ones.
Mary Anne Mohanraj, Sri Lankan-born author of Bodies in Motion , has compiled an extensive list on her website of Alternative Sexualities in Fantasy and SF, and the Carl Brandon Society, an organization which supports the work and representation of People of Color in Science-Fiction and Fantasy, has a wiki page set up with a list of SF/F authors of colour.
But there is still more work to be done in sci-fi/fantasy literature. According to Zoboi, “Haiti has a strong oral tradition so you won’t find that sci-fi or fantasy novel capturing just what really happened during that infamous slave revolt. The stories are in the telling and it is always magical—involving everything from the science of trance to the mysticism in shape-shifting. This is the tradition I come from. And because I am a Haitian-American, I write these stories down and call it speculative fiction—and because I am a black woman, I place myself in the center of these magical, otherworldly stories. Haitian mythology is abundant with kick-ass female characters, so I can’t say I’m creating something new. Now if only the gatekeepers (editors, publishers, and the like) would realize that one culture does not have a monopoly on sci-fi and fantasy. The marginalization of other cultures’ stories comes with the decision to publish or not publish certain stories.”
Goto adds: “Our dreams and myths are also informed by our culture of origin. Our symbologies are not always the same, and nor should they be. There are vast experiences to discover and explore. Why is it that most North Americans know so much more about faeries and the Greek gods, than Coyote and Raven? […] There are still so many gaps and holes in social media that mean so much to youth. Such a dearth of diversity in popular culture, films, tv. There's still an enormous amount of anti-racist and diversity work to be done.”
Mohanraj, in her moving Guest of Honor speech at Wiscon (the feminist sci-fi/fantasy conference in Madison, Wisconsin), 2010, said, “In the SF/F community in the past few years, there have been a series of incidents around social justice -- feminist issues, race issues, more. I think more are coming. I expect that along with RaceFail, we're going to see TransFail, AgeismFail, DisabilityFail. And that's scary, but it's also good. We're at a critical moment, a shifting of the social norms, and we are the ones defining what the new norms will be, what is and is not okay in our community.” (Mohanraj also has an excellent essay up called The Red Sari Project about book covers on books written by South Asian women versus covers on books written by their South Asian male counterparts.
Racefail (a term coined to refer to the huge 2009 blow-up and subsequent dialogue/debate within the online sci-fi/fantasy community around race and writing race), and the issue of whitewashing book covers continues to rage on as strong as ever.
However, the good news is that there has been a Racefail. And there is an uproar over whitewashing. People are discussing and debating, mobilizing and strategizing. People, including authors who’ve had their covers white-washed, are using whatever voice they have to push for change, as scary as that might be.
Later in Mohanraj’s speech, she said, “It can be frightening, speaking up against a friend, or someone you perceive as a powerful editor. It's hard, speaking up against your entire community. […] But heroism isn't about not being afraid. It is about being afraid, and doing the work anyway. Fighting for what you know is right.”
I have faith that more and more people are looking behind what is shown. More and more people are less and less fooled by our constant diet of the single story and a culture that, however unintentionally, promotes a kind of blindness to the truth. I see it everywhere, all around me—people want the truth, they want what’s real, they want to live in a world based on values of justice and equality and they want to see that reflected back in their stories and mythologies. This is the information age—people are getting smarter, and less likely to be fooled. Myth-makers and image-creators would do well to take heed, and some are. In the long run, it’s about so much more than just the bottom line.