Monday, January 22, 2007

Skin deep - or one reason why I write fantasy

This is a picture of a Black Panther. It was taken by a friend of mine, Lim Kim Chye, when we were on a project together over in the Pahang Peat Swamps.

(Acknowledgement: UNDP/GEF Peat Swamp Forest Project Mal/99/G31)


It is also a picture of a leopard.

That right, this is exactly the same animal, the yellow one all covered in spots, that you see drooping over the branches in an African thorn tree. In fact, it is perfectly possible for a leopard to have a twin cubs, one black and one yellow. And if you look very carefully at a Black Panther (as I did at this fellow when we tumbled out of the 4WD to take a look) y0u can actually see the black spots superimposed on a grey-black background.

When I was a kid, a long, long time back, I went through a stage of reading a lot of American/Canadian "boys' own" style stories - you know the sort of thing, frontier stories, Indians and Mountain Men and the French wars and so on, Last of the Mohican type tales. And in almost every book there seemed to figure a shifty figure, dishonest to the bone, called the "half-breed" who absolutely couldn't be trusted, apparently for no other reason than that he was a half-breed. No other reason seemed to be needed.

Which struck me as a little odd, but I didn't lose any sleep over it; that type of book was considered suitable fare for a school library back then.

But somehow, the niggle must have stayed. Because one day I wrote a book about a halfbreed*. Who wasn't shifty, and who showed herself to possess far more integrity and courage than some of the other characters who had impeccable lineages and genteel backgrounds. I guess I had something to say.

What point am I making?

When people ask me "why do you write fantasy?" in a tone that suggests I am throwing away my talent because I should obviously be writing "literary" works of great merit, this is one answer I give: So that I can make a point about things that matter, like tolerance - or point out things that don't matter. Like skin colour.

I could do that with a mainstream novel of course, but one is constrained by reality. Moreover, when you live in someone else's country, in another culture, it is all too easy to upset someone. [What the hell is that foreigner doing coming here and telling us what we can and cannot do?] Genre fiction is a superb vehicle for making a point, making people think, without being crudely obvious.

Any idea how many times I was asked how or where I had adopted my kids?

*The Aware

7 comments:

hrugaar said...

Actually you are writing books of literary merit - but the Fantasy genre itself is treated as a kind of suspect halfbreed in (self-styled) 'literary' circles.

Often the cross-breed dogs are more intelligent than the thoroughbreds (we're back to genetics again, heh). Not that I'm calling you or your books dogs, Glenda, honestly!

Out of interest, do your children still get asked if you're their natural mother? Or has any enlightment filtered through to the next generation?

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Well written. Message is clear.

KarenEMiller said...

Oh, he's so pretty!!!!

And hey, so's Ramly. *g*

Lovely photo of you two. Says it all, really. And your points are spot on.

Emmaco said...

I'm reading a Nevil Shute book at the moment, In the wet, and it has a science fictiony section which zips forward thirty years into the future (which is a very strange future where the UK is depopulated and run down because of socialists and Australia is doing great thanks to the right wing Brits emigrating here and the Queen is very important to us all). Anyway, in the author note he says "...Fiction is the most suitable medium in which to make this forecast. Fiction deals with people and their difficulties and, more than that, nobody takes a novelist too seriously. The puppets born of his imagination walk their little stage for our amusement, and if we find that their creator is impertinent his errors of taste do not sway the world".

Despite his modesty here, it's clear he thought his message was important. When I read his note this morning I thought of this blog entry and how your (more palatable!) message can fly in under the radar as it's "only" fantasy.

Satima Flavell said...

Heh he - "constrained by reality"! Lovely.

There is no better way to make a point than through allegory. That, to me, is good fantasy's greatest strength.

Imagine me said...

couldn't agree more, Glenda. I've never been able to undertand this attitude to 'genre'. As if literature isn't genre, too.

Glenda Larke said...

Thank you, Hrugaar.

Dunno whether the kids still get asked - but my daughter did say she thinks some people think she's the maid when she takes her blond son out...sigh.

Emma, I'm surprised people still read Shute! He is a writer who has dated terribly.