Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Reading Holiday

It’s Spring Break and I’m feasting on good books.

I just finished N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms while also reading Aqueduct Press' Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles edited by L. Timmel Duchamp.

Jemisin’s debut novel is a delight. She creates a memorable heroine with an impossible dilemma and makes you want to lie down in bed with the book all day, turning the pages, changing your mind as you go. You haven’t read this story before—it is not the familiar, the same old same old tale in well-crafted disguise, seducing us once again. The book is playful and entertaining, full of dazzling images, witty insights, and surprising magic/technology. However, Jemisin’s entertaining craft is not much ado over nothing. Nor is her thrilling conclusion just another action/adventure shoot-out. Lo and behold violence is not the ultimate dramatic resolution to save-the world-power-struggle. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a thoughtful, compelling adventure, a great workout for the imagination.

The same can be said of Narrative Power. (I have an essay in the collection, but I hadn’t gotten to read all the other contributions until now.) The essays offer an enchanting and rigorous investigation of the power of story. The writers explore the mystery and magic of spinning a yarn and they illuminate the myriad ways we make ourselves…believe. The inspiration for Narrative Power was a panel at Wiscon that asked, if you don’t want to tell the same old story as before, how do you need to change the structure of what you write? This is a glorious question that prompted many more intriguing questions. I dare say N. K. Jemisin was working out an answer with her novel. I look forward to the next volume and a further exploration of the world she has created.

Narrative Power has been/is still a tightly guarded resource, wielded to maintain status quo power relations in the empire. Those who have Narrative Power get to tell me who I am and authoritatively define (delimit) my actions, even specify the terrain of my dreams, the limits of my imagination. For example, an emerging African American woman SF&F writer is labeled the next Octavia Butler. In the midst of a supposed compliment and an appreciation of a great writer-elder, the complexity and uniqueness of Ms. Butler and the new writer are neutralized and spirit is ignored. (Nobody is going to be the next Octavia Butler!) What’s the thinking here? There are so few published SF & F books written by black women or people of color that the authors’ creative output and personal narratives will naturally be analogous or almost identical to the few non-white authors who have already been published? Or perhaps no conscious thinking, rather the notion just emerges and “Octavia Butlerness” feels right, feels positive, a glowing pronouncement when confronting a “promising” black woman SF&F novelist and her work.

If we don’t want to read the same old story, we’ll have to change how we read/narrate one another too. This is a co-evolutionary challenge to inventing new structures. New stories need new readers.

The writers in Narrative Power argue persuasively that we—humanity—can imagineer a new story for the pages of our lives. There are of course those who argue against this. Eleanor Arnason in her essay, “Narrative and Class,” points to “Thatcher’s two lies—that there is no alternative, and there is no such thing as a society.” Thatcher was an enemy of thinking who would use her Narrative Power to render us mindless. She is/was not alone in this pursuit. I believe that we are social beings embodying our socially constructed narratives. We can surely come up with alternatives to the current fantasy we call reality. Despite all the recent bad PR, despite foolish, rigid, or elitist academics, despite the ignorance is bliss bull, thinking is not a buzz kill. THINKING is a blast.

Reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles was a thinking person’s vacation away from my everyday survival routine and happy habits. Coming home, everything was bit different! Thanks to N. K. Jemisin, L. Timmel Duchamp, and the essay writers!


Josh said...

Geez, it sounds like "the next Octavia Butler" is the new "the new Invisible Man" (a label that still shows up in blurbs for minority-authored novels). That kind of reductiveness is far from harmless, as I learned from Tariq Ali's work on how the US labels each of its enemies "the new Hitler." It prescribes a whole set of well-rehearsed cognitive and emotional responses/expectations. And by implication, excludes other possibilities. Oy. I'm reminded of Timmi's argument about the restrictiveness of public readings. And of people who just don't get Karen Joy Fowler.

Nu, I went and bought Nora's book at your recommendation. Thanks!

Andrea Hairston said...

Thanks for pointing me to Timmi's essay--a great one!