Sunday, June 23, 2013

After Deathless and The Fox Woman

The elusive Kitsune crosses a bridge.

I've read two excellent books these past few months. Catherynne Valente's Deathless and Kij Johnson's The Fox Woman. Both are retellings of tales from cultures to which the authors don't belong. Because I found both books stimulating, I still can't stop thinking about what makes them work, and what continues to bother me about them. The "being bothered" part is good: It makes me think about the kind of writing I'm doing (or want to do). 

Generally, I'm uncomfortable reading stories set in a culture that the author does not belong to. I'm not quite sure that this is the correct attitude, but I suppose this has something to do with the fact that I belong to what is arguably a "minor" culture that is susceptible to appropriation--and has, in fact, been appropriated, co-opted, etc. 

I have serious problems with books written in the realist mode, which describe my culture, or people whom I might know or whom I come in contact with on a daily basis, because I live with them in our shared social space. Although how they are portrayed are found in fiction, the portrayal  distracts me from reading the story. Sometimes I get the sense that "my world" or people "like me" as described in these works are a convenient shorthand for something else that the author wants to talk about. 

To address the risk that one might alienate one's readers by writing fiction about characters or cultures that aren't one's own, one can write fantasy and narrate the story as one would a tale (in the third person, or through a framing device of some sort) so that the reader knows that the narrative is precisely that, a narrative, not something that purports to be real. 

For example, Cat Valente's Deathless is set in a particular historical time in Russia. When the story of Marya Morevna is first told, it is told using the convention of fairy tales.  Many of Deathless' characters are part of the mythic world. I think this is a more honest way of going about one's storytelling: It is as though you are telling your reader, "Let me tell you a story. It is just a story, with pieces of it coming from other stories I'd heard before. And these pieces I'd heard before, I'm using as stand-ins to say something else. But it's just a story, and the story's my account of certain things, and not the way things actually are, or were."

Another way of addressing the challenge is to make sure that the link between the real and fantastic is accepted by all [the characters and], especially the reader. There may be a moment when the reader hesitates and asks herself if she can accept the assumption of the work--that the story is fantastic, and the rules of the "real world"--including the rules of a culture, what these rules and conventions must mean to a culture, its members--do not apply (and no one, including the reader, expects them to). But the work must lead the reader to overcome the hesitation and take the leap toward the fantastic.

Kij Johnson's "Fox Magic" (short story) addresses the challenge this way. It is told in the voice and from the point of view of Kitsune, the fox that magically steals a man from his wife. When the reader enters the story, she is looking at it from the point of view of an animal, not a human being from the culture that the animal is observing or aspires to. The animal does not know of the thoughts and culture of humans, and so a reader enters the "reality" as she would a dream--which is what the short story reads like: A beautiful, sad dream. Furthermore, the animal, like the author, is an outsider to the culture, and so the web of social interaction between humans--why they act one way and not the other--is convincing in its being the cause of much puzzlement and misunderstanding. The "culture" serves as backdrop and setting, beautiful and incomprehensible, a stage for the actual story to play out.

In Valente's Deathless, none of the characters questions the coexistence of reality and fantasy. Reality is that girls are married to birds that fall out of trees and turn into soliders, who turn into birds. The Tsar of Life and Death and salt still rule pockets of the world. Every home has a house elf, never mind that the house elves of different families who are forced to live in a single house have formed a commune, just as was the fashion in the "real world" during that time. Reality v. fantasy is not the main question that the novel explores: It is the very condition within which the story plays itself out. The reader needs to accept this to continue reading, and understanding, the story (which is not about reality, and therefore may be about something else--maybe, truth).

When Johnson transformed "Fox Magic" (short story) into The Fox Woman (novel) she traded one voice and point of view (Kitsune's) for three: Kitsune's, that of a former lady-in-waiting of Sei Shonagon, and the voice/POV of the latter's husband. 

The fact that Johnson chose to use three different points of view and voices in the novel enabled her to expand the love story into a more profound story about individual choice. It also heightened the drama between the three main characters, and the intimacy between the reader and all three characters. In the end, one finds that all three characters needed to reach a common epiphany, though the outcome of that epiphany was uncertain. The resonance between the three characters' stories, which affected me deeply, would not have been apparent, had only one point of view been retained. 

But because two of the three main characters were fully human, and part of the "real" Japanese world of the time, I wondered whether the novel's conclusion (not illusion or reality, but individual choice) would have been a viable one, under the social milieu previously described, and throughout the novel. I found myself asking this, in spite of Johnson's truly magical storytelling. But the fact that they were narrated as human, of a particular culture and time, demanded that I ask the question. 

I wish I could go back to a time when stories were just stories, my reading and writing wouldn't need to be bothered by these concerns. But that time has long past (if it ever actually existed), and every story, too, can now be read as a kind of colonization. If one gets it wrong, one might simply reduce the "other" to a mirror reflecting back one's own truth. In a perfect world, I suppose the other could simply and easily "write back" to recover one's terrain, one's own meaning, one's truth. Sadly, however, from where I sit, this does not yet seem to be that world.

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