Studying Fantasy: An interview with Professor Robert Maslen

univ of glasgowThe University of Glasgow has announced an M.Litt in Fantasy this year, and being the pseudo academic non pseudo fantasy lover that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a peek. I wrote to the program director, Professor Robert Maslen and he was kind enough to answer a couple of questions on the course, the process of designing it and the place of fantasy in academia today.

I definitely think all those interested in studying the genre in a university setting should consider the program. For more details, check out the website.

Also it totally helps that the place looks like Hogwarts.

Photo on 2015-03-17 at 11.18

Professor Robert Maslen

Here, we hand the floor over to Professor Maslen.

1) What drove you to create this programme?

I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, so the programme could be described as the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. I’ve taught an undergraduate course in fantasy since about 2006 (it’s called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’, and it recruits so well that we have to cap it every year). I also supervise undergraduate dissertations on fantasy, and in recent years the number of fantasy-themed dissertations has increased beyond all precedent. A good proportion of my doctoral students, too, have worked in the field. All these developments convinced me that a Masters in Fantasy would attract students. And when I did some research and found out that there is no other such course in the world (though I would be happy to be disabused of this notion – there’s plenty of room for more!), I knew the moment had come to set one up. I should add that I’m tremendously lucky to work at a university that supports the idea of teaching fantasy, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. I know from experience how rare it is to get the chance to work on fantasy in higher education, and it’s to the eternal credit of the University of Glasgow that they didn’t consider the award of a ‘Masters in Fantasy’ too embarrassing and dismiss it out of hand.

2) In the description of the programme offered on the University website, you say that the course is divided into two parts, with Part 1 focusing on fantasy literature from 1750 [1780 actually!] to 1950. What made you choose this time frame and not earlier texts like Beowulf and Morte d’Arthur?

Good question, and I’m not sure how good an answer I can give! There are two, in fact. One is simply that I wanted to focus closely on the fantasy texts I love, and that these have tended to be from the period covered by the course. Embracing a longer period would have meant sacrificing the sort of close scrutiny I thought these texts warranted and have too rarely received. The other answer is to do with the definition of fantasy. Among other things I’m a scholar of early modern literature, and I wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the notion that fantasy existed in the sixteenth century or before. This is because I tend to define fantasy as the literature of the impossible. What makes a story fantastic is the fact that the reader knows full well that a certain element or elements in the narrative could le mortenever have happened, and our willingness to embrace impossibility as an integral part of the reading experience is what makes the genre unique. What’s deemed to be impossible changes, of course, between one century or decade and the next, and I’m not sure what they would have said was ‘impossible’ in the sixteenth century. So fantasy for me begins with the Enlightenment: the point at which certain thinkers decided that certain things were definitely possible and others not. We break the course in half at 1950 because the 50s are the decade of three hugely influential fantasy sequences: the Narnia chronicles, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and of course The Lord of the Rings. After that decade everything changed, and we’ll have our work cut out in the second semester to squeeze in everything people want to read between 1950 and the present.

3) Will students have the opportunity to explore other, diverse sources and their impact on modern fiction? Such as myths and sagas from Scandinavia, Japan and the Middle East?

The main thrust of the core course is towards an exploration of literature and the arts rather than myth and folklore; and its focus is on English language fantasy. The reason is simple: we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to address the full range of myth and fantasy from around the world in the short time available to us there would be no time to do justice to the focal texts, that is, the fantasies we want to study. There will be plenty of opportunity, though, to study fantasy traditions arising from other cultures. You could choose to do an option in Literature and Theology, for instance, which would let you explore the relationship between myth and fantasy under the guidance of experts in global culture. And of course you could do in-depth work on fantasy in relation to Japanese or Icelandic – or indeed Czech or Indian – culture in your dissertation.

4) As an academic, do you think fantasy runs a very real danger of becoming dangerously reductive in its presentation of different communities?

I think all fiction courts this danger, and that it’s the responsibility of creative writers to work against cultural reductiveness and of academics to point it out wherever it occurs. A certain element of reductivism is inescapable in a university programme like the Masters in Fantasy, in that it’s impossible to represent the full range of fantasy traditions in different global communities, or even in different communities within the English-speaking world, in just two semesters. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t encourage our students to explore fantasy produced by some of the many communities we have not been able to cover – either in options or the dissertation.

aiel

5) Where does the line lie between children’s literature (a lot of which can be considered fantasy) and the more adult books we classify as ‘fantasy’ in the publishing world? What about books that straddle both those genres—such as the Harry Potter series or ‘The Lord of the Rings’?

There isn’t a line, I think, except the one you choose to draw as a writer, publisher, reader, or academic. Many books written to be read by children have ended up as favourites with adults (the Harry Potter series is a good example). And a lot of older children’s literature is now mainly read by adults: how many children these days read The Water Babies or Peter and Wendy? One thing that fascinates me, though, is the number of major fantasy works for adults that have their roots in books for children – which is one of the things I harryunderstand by your term ‘straddling’. Two obvious examples are The Lord of the Rings, which began as a sequel to Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, and T H White’s The Once and Future King, whose first section is a revised version of his children’s novel The Sword in the Stone. Unlike any non-fantasy fiction I can think of (again, I’m happy to be corrected!), these two books or book series are formally and stylistically designed to take account of the maturing of the child into the adult reader; and both of them help to explain why many fantasy readers are so profoundly un-snooty about the line you speak of. What these works say to us is: the line between childhood and adulthood is one we’ve all crossed, if we are adults, though few of us can say exactly when; and the process of making this transition can and should be traced in fiction’s form as well as its content. For me, the text that first successfully blurred the line between adult and children’s fantasy – I mean to the extent that one can completely forget it was initially marketed as a book for children – was Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I remember reading this as a 9- or 10-year-old and being profoundly shocked by its refusal to entertain any of the literary conventions I was familiar with – such as adopting the viewpoint of the young protagonist, or treating him unequivocally as a ‘hero’. There was a coldness, a detachment from Ged’s predicaments that unnerved me as much as it fascinated me, and my attempts to grapple with this difference marked a major step on my road to becoming a mature reader.

6) What do you consider essential reading for anyone interested in this programme?

George MacDonald’s Phantastes, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence, Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor, John Crowley’s Little, Big, and anything that matters to you personally. Part of the pleasure of fantasy is that all our lists will be different. Read the fat books before you arrive and you’ll enjoy them a great deal more than if you rush through them after your arrival; they deserve to be mulled over in the long evenings.

7) Given the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, do you think some of the traditional concepts of fantasy have changed, such as the clear cut definitions of good and evil that dominated earlier writers’ work? How do you think this will change perception of the genre?

Love me, love my evil.

Love me, love my evil.

Aren’t we rooting for Steerpike, in the Gormenghast books, even as we revile him? Where exactly does evil reside in Lud-in-the-Mist, or Little, Big, or even Phantastes? The big exception is The Lord of the Rings – along with the Narnia chronicles – which unequivocally pits good against evil in a battle to the death. One of the values of a programme like the Fantasy Masters is that it enables you to see how exceptional and surprising Tolkien and Lewis are in this emphasis, and how almost as soon as their impact began to be felt writers also began to problematize the good/evil dichotomy that was essential to their visions. This being said, I think A Game of Thrones, like all major recent phenomena in fantasy (I’m thinking of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy – if that’s fantasy – and the work of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett), help to throw new light on the history of fantasy, altering our view of it, either subtly or radically, to the enrichment of the genre. Fans of The Game of Thrones may turn to the quasi-political fantasies of E. R. Eddison to find out where Martin sprang from; just as Potter fans helped restore to us the genius of Diana Wynne Jones, or Gaiman conjured out of the past Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his great inspirations. I love the fact that modern fantasy writers are so keen to proselytize about the authors they admire. All these writers are changing perceptions of the genre – have changed them, to the extent that it’s now respectable to have a Masters in Fantasy at a major British University, something I thought would never happen in my lifetime!

8) Do you think fantasy is not given its due weight in academic circles, still, or has the growth in audience (thanks to big budget films and runaway successes like Harry Potter) changed that?

It’s still not given its due weight. I have academic colleagues who will say to me that they never read fantasy: yet they teach the fantasies of Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Doris Lessing and Angela Carter on a regular basis. Their distaste for the genre is hardly surprising, given that the term ‘fantasy’ has always been used as an insult, a way of suggesting a childishly irresponsible tendency to turn away from the urgent danyproblems of ‘real life’ and seek comfort in dreams. At the same time, the big budget films and runaway successes show us how widely this tendency is shared among contemporary readers and viewers around the world, so it seems to me childishly irresponsible not to subject fantasy to the same level of intelligent scrutiny we apply to far less widespread cultural phenomena. People seem to feel the need for fantasy in the twenty-first century, which means we should feel the need to study it.

9) How do you think this course will benefit a long-time reader of fantasy?

Each time I write about a familiar text I feel as though I’ve developed a better understanding of why it made such an impact on me and its other readers. Each time I re-read a major fantasy novel to teach it afresh I discover something new and astonishing about it. Reading fantasy texts in the historical context of the genre’s development, discussing them in the light of the various theories that attempt to explain how the genre functions – these activities will radically change your views on fantasy, I guarantee it. You won’t read it in the same way again after taking this course. And in my experience, this means you will take more pleasure in it, not less: analysis enriches, it doesn’t diminish. The course will also introduce you to texts you don’t know, and that’s something to celebrate. The canon of fantasy hasn’t yet been fixed. What I prize won’t be the same as what you think important, and teachers and students in the programme will be constantly sharing ideas about the fiction, films, comics and computer games that matter to them. And each new fantasy text you discover will subtly change the map of the genre you’ve been drawing in your head. Surely that’s an adventure any long-term reader of fantasy couldn’t resist!

10) And finally—what’s your favourite fantasy book and what are you reading now?

My favourite fantasy book changes as often as my favourite food. When I was seven, The Hobbit was the most important. When I was thirteen it was The Lord of the Rings; at wizardtwenty I might have said The Book of the New Sun. But the works of Ursula Le Guin are probably the ones that have meant most to me, most consistently, across the years since I started reading. So I’ll pick the six-volume Earthsea sequence as if it were a single book, and say it’s my favourite.

I’ve been reading Patricia McKillip in recent weeks. I loved in particular The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Alphabet of Thorn. I’ve re-read Mary Norton’s The Borrowers for a class and been blown away again by its complexity. And I’ve also just finished the third novel in James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, of which I’m a big admirer, and the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer. Both of these helped to confirm my view that we’re living in the most ambitious epoch of fantasy writing – both for adults and children – and that fantasy readers should be happy to be alive in the twenty-first century.

The ‘more important things’ AKA Why Hermione is an Exemplary Gryffindor

hermioneReading the Harry Potter books, it is safe to say, changed my life to an extent that only The Lord of the Rings can claim to match. Since I read the first page of ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ all those years ago, they have become an integral part of me, allowing me to define myself during years where self worth and identity were hard to come by, picking me up when I thought I had hit rock bottom emotionally and mentally. Even now, when I need a quick reminder of how to get past something that seems insurmountable, I turn to Harry Potter and the different kinds of bravery enshrined within its covers.

Two of those I’ve already spoken about here, on this blog: Sirius’s sort of heady, crazed defiance, which pays little heed to personal safety; and Harry’s much more quiet, dedicated sort of bravery, that enables him to keep his nose to the grindstone and shoulder on even when people tell him to just stop already. In this post, I’m going to tackle another kind, and one that has become a sort of fascination for me, precisely because it’s the kind I feel the most in need of/have felt at some point in the past: the sheer gutsiness of Hermione Granger.

Hermione is walking encyclopaedia of knowledge in the Potterverse, and makes that obvious right at our first encounter. She’s read nearly everything she could get her hands on within two months of being notified that she is a witch, and reels off names to a stunned Harry and Ron. She has read everything in advance, and is the only person who seems prepared to answer the questions Snape puts to Harry during that calamitous first Potions class.

This is a child who knows her stuff.

This is a child who knows her stuff.

This is a consistent character trait, for most of the series. Hermione, the character who comes from a world and background utterly alien to the magical one, knows more than most wizards and witches her age, or even older. She over-prepares for every test, and her worst fear is, literally, failing all her exams.

Rowling described Hermione as ‘terrified’, explaining that this terror at being unprepared, at finding herself caught out without an answer, is what drives her manic need to know it all and know it now. What propels Hermione’s academic brilliance is not only her near-idetic memory and inherent gift for the subjects, is the simple thirst for knowledge. And hermione newspapershe doesn’t grab it all up for the sake of competing and emerging ahead of the others—she does it because she is terrified of what would happen to her if she doesn’t know.

Hermione is, in some senses, the ideal student, and the most organized human being in the Potterverse. She is amazingly rational, tackling problems with a combination of logic and skill. Identify the cause, identify the solution (through methods of deduction that even Holmes would approve of) and then proceed to apply. The results will be flawless as all the books tell you they should be.

What keeps Hermione from being the hero, though, is her lack of spontaneity, and her need to follow a path laid down for her by books. This is best exemplified in the first Potions lesson of Half Blood Prince, where Hemione refuses point blank to listen to

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere...

When playing by the rules gets you nowhere…

Harry’s notes (rather, the ‘Prince’s’ notes) and proceeds doggedly according to the trusted book’s instructions. Her inability to veer from the printed matter results in Harry, for once, beating her at the subject and taking the lead from then on.

Rebelling against these rules—Hermione’s one guide to a completely unfamiliar world—happens rarely, and when it does, Hermione’s rebellion is usually quite spectacular. She slaps Malfoy across the face, helps to break a convict out of death row (pretty much), starts an underground Defence league and then, finally, bunks an entire school year to bring down the most feared Dark Wizard for a century, following a friend who, she finds out along the way, has absolutely no idea of what he’s doing.

Given that rule breaking and improvisation is really not her thing, it’s a huge huge HUGE deal that Hermione becomes the irreverent, quick thinking witch she does in ‘Deathly Hallows’. What’s perhaps the biggest indication of this change and maturity is the fact that when they finally realize that Harry has no set plan, it’s Ron, the much more impulsive, badass hermspontaneous character, who walks out on him. Hermione sticks by his side, and doesn’t even give him grief. She keeps her feelings to herself, and shoulders much more of the burden from then on.

The reason I find Hermione so inspiring is, simply put, this: when you’ve been a model student all your life, when you’ve lived your life, clinging desperately to rules and books to anchor you in a wholly new and unfamiliar world, it’s really hard to throw all that aside and just make a go of it on your brains alone. It indicates an extremely high level of maturity and belief not only in your friends, but in yourself. Hermione, by this point, has hermione wandtruly grown up, no longer hiding behind pure logic and reason to guide her. Of course, those remain her greatest weapons, but she finally brings to bear the words she’d uttered all those years ago in the chamber housing Snape’s riddling potions:

‘Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…’

No one utterly refashions themselves and gets over their inner hurdles the way Hermione does. And for that, she’s a bloody amazing character and one hell of a role model.

This is the Way the World Ends

harry deathlyToday I woke up feeling like the world was going to end.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt it. That honour belongs to a grey, misty day in Delhi, when the world was muffled by a blanket of smog and things were so out of whack that even the Metro, the most faithful and perservering of services, shut down. I knew things were bad when my boss called me and told me not to come in to work because the trains weren’t running.

Given that I’m a naturally optimistic person, I have often wondered where I would be, and what I would be doing, and who I would be with when the world finally ground to an ‘end’. I’ve come to the conclusion that I would most likely:

1) Be on my way home from work, and therefore, stuck in the metro.
2) Texting someone about how blah my life is.
3) Just mildly annoyed when people started screaming and shoving when they saw the big wave of fire/water/industrial waste/kaiju and thinking ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of this city’.

And then the world would end.

Basically, I wouldn’t be doing anything I really loved, or with the people I love. Isn’t that what every disaster/apocalypse movie teaches us? When the shit goes down, you are not with the person who means the most to you, and the rest of the movie is a long struggle to get to them. If you’re lucky, like Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, your  jakerelatives are very plucky, experienced people who will find and rescue you, even if you are barricaded into the New York Public Library.

Is this fear of the bathetic, the apocalypse being a major cop-out, the result of an overwhelming sense of, I don’t know, annoyance? Since we’ve consistently proven to ourselves that humanity is capable of cruelty and evil on a terrifying scale, we don’t need the hijinks of a God-driven apocalypse to shock us anymore?

I’ve wondered sometimes if the drive and re-turn to fantasy, to staples of heroism and ‘goodness’ enshrined in books like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter is because it’s hard to find those clear-cut morals in the ‘real world’ anymore. In these books, you have a simple way of setting things right, a set manner that can be considered ‘right’. A saviour will show up and do something and everything will be good again. The end averted, the Darkness dispelled for the time being. All you need is a little faith.

That's how it won't go down.

That’s how it won’t go down.

In fantasy books, the world threatens to end with a bang. You can prepare for it, you can see it coming, and if you’re lucky and dedicated enough, you can postpone it. In the real world, you’ll probably be stuck, complaining about your commute, and your biggest worry would be that your phone service was acting strange.

 

The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.

arwenThere are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and elrond

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

it was a gift

Eugh. What a shitty move.

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that Arwencenturies of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

The Magician’s Land

cover54662-mediumAll fantasy series come to an end. Cataclysmic, complicated or clownish, eventually the writer tires of playing with the world she’s created and decides to retire gracefully while the going’s still good. Or while the heroes are still young and relatively good looking. No one wants to spend time casting an 80-year old Harry Potter after all, even though audiences would probably still go to the Imax to watch that movie.

Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ trilogy came to end last year, but thanks to my habit of being chronically late to many parties, I just about watched it fold its covers and retire to a hallowed space on my shelf. It didn’t compel me as much as The Magician King did (oh Julia, you were just something else), but true to Grossman’s form, The Magician’s Land did leave me with a lot to think about, something I always appreciate in a fantasy book.

I’ve said it before, and I think I will continue to say it for years to come: Lev Grossman is a writer who can take the fantasy conventions you’ve taken for granted all your life and turn them upside down. Even in this book, which, in many ways, has the most staid premise of them all, he manages to surprise.

Quentin has been expelled from Fillory, the magical land he once ruled over with his magician friends. Unable, or unwilling, to sink back into the slough of despair that had ruled his return the last time (in The Magicians), Quentin sets himself a new project, and along the way, falls into a number of crazy adventures that unite him with friends old and new, as well as make him some unexpected enemies.

(It is hard to write a book review of a book in a series, I realize. You really can’t give much away at all.)

The Magician’s Land harps on many of the same themes that riddle Grossman’s previous books. What do you do when you have unlimited power and no villain to destroy? What use is idealism and nobility, all the things that the fantasy books teach you, in this ‘wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long’? How does all that reading and learning really help you handle this ‘heartless wasteland’?

I am, of course, looking at ‘magic’ as Grossman’s metaphor for higher education, or the sort of crazy idealism that many fantasy readers secretly harbour deep beneath their most cynical surfaces. Quentin, the fanboy, reflects on the lack of ‘obvious’ use/meaning of magic in a world devoid of monsters and dark lords and other obvious personifications of Evil:

‘What do you think magic is for?…I used to think about this a lot. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say “hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.”

‘But in real life that guys never turns up He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it out all by yourself….There’s no answers in the back of the book.’

Quentin is older, more sure of himself in this book, and the burden of being a lost lamb is taken up by a new entrant: Plum. A comfortingly Hermione-like character, Plum is the smart, driven girl who seems to be a fixed type in Grossman’s universe. She steps into the competent friend/caregiver/supporter role vacated by Alice, and disdained by the distant and rather inhuman Julia. The absolute lack of romantic affiliation between Quentin and her probably adds to her appeal, and also makes her the perfect Hermione foil to Quentin’s brooding and distant Harry.

The book provides a good close to a great trilogy, and definitely leaves you wanting more. Will Grossman indulge us with more Fillory books? Will he continue to follow the adventures of Quentin and his friends, or let them walk away into the horizon, triumphant for now? Probably the latter. There’s only so many times you can pose and answer the same questions, until the originality wears off. I wonder, though, how well this very cerebral series will translate when it goes onto TV screens. Not going to lie, I’m a little apprehensive about that.

But screw it, I’ll definitely watch the show anyway.

The Magician King

magician kingIt took me more than a year to get to the sequel of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in spite of the fact that I found the first book very thought provoking. Maybe it was precisely because it was so intellectually demanding that I took my time to pick up the next. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I waited till now to do it, because I don’t think I would have connected to The Magician King as deeply as I did if I had read it a year ago.

The Magician King picks up soon after The Magicians leaves off. Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Julia and the kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory, Quentin’s childhood fantasy. The royal life is starting to get a bit boring, though, so Quentin decides it is high time for an adventure. Accompanied by a band of misfits (including the mysteriously changed Julia), Quentin sets out for Outer Island, the easternmost post of his empire, where he finds a mysterious key that sends him back, dramatically enough, to the cold streets of Chesterton, Massachusetts, and back to the real world. Quentin and Julia quickly realise that the adventure they find is not always as grand as the one they might imagine, and even when things do turn out as dramatic as Quentin might wish, the price he has to pay is not one he might have chosen at all.

The Magician King is a great follow up to its predecessor. If The Magicians was about a bunch of directionless college kids with access to seemingly unlimited power, its sequel captures the aimlessness and quarter life crisis that assails many over educated, under employed and entitled twenty somethings. As great as Quentin is (and I totally sympathise with his needing-to-be-a-hero angst), the character who really spoke to me in this book was Julia.

Like Quentin, Julia’s life changed the day she sat that examination in Brakebills. Unlike Quentin, Julia didn’t get into university, and it destroyed her. The Magician King narrates, in flashback mode, her struggle to learn magic on her own, one that involves long bouts of depression, loneliness, and ultimately, a terrible sacrifice. Julia is the smart kid who was dealt a raw hand by fate, or destiny, or whatever magical being holds the playing cards in a human life. The girl who’s always followed the rules and worked hard and is used to overachieving, and then suddenly things spiral out of control and life lands her hard on her back. Funnily enough, she reacts to this loss in a manner that might sound familiar to a lot of crisis-ridden twenty somethings:

She was dipping a toe in the pool of bad behaviour and finding the temperature was just right. It was fun being a problem. Julia had been very very good for a very long time, and the funny thing about that was, if you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about. Nobody makes a fuss over you. They make a fuss over the bad girls. In her quiet way..Julia was causing a bit of a fuss, for once in her life, and it felt good.

Julia watches Quentin from afar, sees him get brighter, happier, ahead in a field she had never once considered for herself, but when denied access to it, hungers for all the more. Grossman describes the differences between their attitudes to magic thus:

When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen to him his whole life. He practically expected that shit…

Whereas Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her play for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was much more sensible…from a probability point of view..

While Quentin is the classic fantasy fan boy who yearns for the kind of adventures he’s read about all his life, and then ends up in one, Julia stumbles into one by accident, and then realizes it’s something she wants. Magic ends up messing with both of them, of course, but while Quentin almost seems to deserve it (almost…), Julia has a much rougher experience. As a result, while Quentin is blithely ironic and stylishly detached from his new magical universe (or pretends to be), Julia is openly dedicated to her art, and will go any distance to get something down right.

James Potter versus Hermione Granger, if you will.

What I loved about The Magician King was the characters’ idealistic and rather naive desire to ‘do something’, to make big things happen now that they were adults living the dream. I think it’s exactly what assails a lot of liberal arts grads (I’m speaking from personal experience here) when they leave their schools—what happens now? What do you do with all the lessons on history and literature and human endeavour in the real world, a world that doesn’t seem to care what you think about Prufrock’s meanderings? Surely there is more to life than work and sleep and making money? Quentin and his fellows find that meaning sometimes, in snatches, but they still experience an almost overwhelming sense of muted surprise. Being the king of Fillory is wonderful, Quentin reflects, but is that all there is for him after four years of breaking his back, learning spells? After such knowledge, what purpose?

Harry has graduated from Hogwarts, but there are no more bad wizards to chase down. Frodo destroyed the Ring and didn’t manage to catch that ship to the West. Rand mastered the secrets of channeling only to be told that the Dark One was a myth and his services wouldn’t be needed anymore.

Magic isn’t always the answer, evidently. And even if it is, you’re not sure you should have ever asked the question in the first place—just ask Julia.

The Magician King is, finally, a great read and Grossman is a genius. Call yourself a Potter fan or a Narnia nut? This book is definitely for you.

We need to talk about Jasmine

I grew up quite the Disney kid, as I’ve mentioned before. And so the news that Emma Watson, everyone’s favourite book loving leading lady, is signing on to play Belle in Disney’s revamped Beauty and the Beast was quite exciting. I mentioned this development to my mother, whose response was a world weary sigh and the following question:

‘Why do they want to ruin all the animated movies?’

Being the sassy twenty something I am, I retorted with, ‘Because they have to make the movies more obviously feminist.’

Then I sobered down and added, ‘Also, to make money.’

The conversation made me think, though, about the need for ‘feminist-ifying’ Disney heroines. When I was a kid, watching all those classics like ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ for the first time, I never really thought about what kind of social codes or behaviours they were prescribing. Now, with all the revamping, they’re coming under some heavy fire and re-examination, so of course I jumped on the bandwagon and went back and rewatched an old favourite: ‘Aladdin’.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this movie. There are two reasons for this, both of which are pretty superficial:

Aladdin was my first crush, and continues to be my favourite Disney prince of all time. 

Oh man, he was cute.

Oh man, he was cute.

Someone once told me that I looked like Jasmine.

I warned you—superficial reasons.

Anyway, the rewatch (which took place in September 2014, to be precise, in chilly Chicago, in the company of one of my best friends) made me realize something: Disney already had a fiery, feminist princess, way before Mulan entered the scene. And that princess was Jasmine.

Jasmine-disney-princess-16248196-600-480What’s in a name: ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Little Mermaid’—what do all these classic Disney princess movies have in common? They all include/refer to the female protagonist (the ‘princess’) in their title. Aladdin’s Jasmine is the only one of the original line up to not enjoy that privilege. She is also, notably, the only female character in her movie. Apart from the denizens of a brothel who show up once (during the song ‘One Jump’), and a little girl at the fruit market, Jasmine seems to be the only woman in Agrabah. Or the only woman who’s important enough to be part of the titular hero’s story anyway. She has no female support system, and her only friend is a tiger trained to dismiss troublesome suitors.

Sticking it to the marriage market: When we meet Jasmine, she has just cast off the unwanted advances of yet another conceited princeling. It’s not the first time this has happened—her father has been foisting suitors onto her for a while because the law says she ‘must be married’ to ascend the throne. ‘The law is wrong,’ she says, and all her jasmine pissedactions seem to suit her words. Even when ‘Prince Ali’ shows up, impressing the Sultan with his grand entrance, Jasmine remains unmoved. ‘I am not some prize to be won!’ is her melodramatic exiting line. You go girl.

The existential angst: There’s no question that Jasmine feels ‘trapped’. The movie is full of symbols of her seeking the freedom she lacks—freeing the birds in her garden, jumping over the walls to see what awaits her on the other side, even, at one point, declaring that maybe she doesn’t ‘want to be a princess anymore!’. I suppose you could pin this down to poor-little-rich-girl angst, especially when you contrast it to Aladdin’s desire to find a place/security in his street rat world. Also, when she breaks out of the palace, Jasmine very obviously has no idea how to function in the ‘real world’, nearly losing her hand for her naivety. But she’s a fast learner, and picks up quickly enough.

Smooth playa: Jasmine remains unimpressed by ‘Ali’s’ grandiose display. Jasmine is also a keen observer and can tell quickly that ‘Ali’ is not who he says he is, and is bold enough to confront him about it—‘Why did you lie to me?’, she demands after their romantic ride. Also, look at this bit from ‘A Whole New World’, where Aladdin rolls an apple off his shoulder and Jasmine catches it: it’s obvious she’s figured out who he is.

aladdin and jasmine marketapple

OMG: Remember how Megara is such a big deal in the Disney pantheon because she uses her sexuality unashamedly? Well Jasmine did that LONG before her. Jasmine jafar and jasmineseduces Jafar, distracting him in order to let Aladdin get about his mission of ‘making things right’. Jasmine knows what she’s got and she ain’t ashamed to flaunt it. If you don’t think this is a big deal in a kids’ movie…well. I really don’t know what to say. Of course, it could also be said that, as the only ‘exotic’, Eastern princess in her time, Jasmine was unfairly sexualized in a manner that her fellow ‘white’ princesses like Aurora and Snow White were not. But at least she owns her sexuality, and uses it to achieve her ends on her terms.

Before we forget...she manages to discomfit Aladdin too.

Before we forget…she manages to discomfit Aladdin too.

At the end of the movie, Aladdin is promoted to ‘suitable’ status because of his exploits, and Jasmine agrees to abide by age-old conventions and get married, so maybe this is a bit of a cop out. I’m looking forward to the rework that Disney will no doubt get down to making, where Jasmine is the real heroine (let’s face it, she’s a lot more fun than Aladdin) who makes her way in a man’s world, maybe picking up a street rat or two on the way.

But only if she wants it, of course.

aladdin and jasmine end

Ravenclaw, the Thinking House

hogwarts crestLately, I’ve caught myself wondering a lot about which Hogwarts house I would actually be in. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really impossible to know, and all the computer generated results I get from quizzes designed to answer this question are bogus. Also, if the element of choice is a factor, as Harry’s ending up in Gryffindor seems to indicate, how does it matter which house’s traits suit my eleven year old self’s personality? I would just choose to go where my friends were.

But there was a time in the not so distant past when I seriously thought that, of all the Houses, I would be in Ravenclaw. This House has always sort of fascinated me, for a number of reasons. I’m going to discuss those reasons here.

The Sorting System: As we know, the Sorting Hat divides students into four groups, based on a dominant personality trait. Gryffindor gets the ‘brave’ kids, or those who value courage and daring above everything else; Slytherins are the ‘ambitious’ (or more likely, unscrupulous) ones; Hufflepuffs are hardworking and loyal and the Ravenclaws are ‘intelligent’.

Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334

None of these traits is mutually exclusive. There’s nothing that keeps a person from being intelligent, unscrupulous, hardworking and daring—in fact, Harry himself displays all four during his quest to bring down Voldemort. What the Sorting really does is assign children places to sleep for seven years and binds them into cliques and teams; it puts kids with like-minded individuals and then lets feuds and friendships foster.

Slytherin versus Gryffindor: The main players in Hogwarts during Harry’s years all seem to come from these two houses, which are posited as the big two, with Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff functioning as bystanders who support one or the other, usually Gryffindor. The reasons for this are fairly simple: a) Harry and company, the main characters of the series, are all in Gryffindor and their antagonists are in Slytherin, so of course we see more of harry vs dracothese houses than any other and b) the personality traits of openness and courage and daring seem naturally opposed to the twisted ambition and cunning and deviousness that Slytherin students typically exemplify. Rowling also lays out an interesting rich vs. poor, entitled vs. hard-working conflict through their encounters, so you have Slytherin Malfoy, who can literally buy his way onto a Quidditch team, and the Weasleys, all of whom get onto the team through sheer talent and have medium-grade brooms.

Gryffindor and Hufflepuff: Since ‘hard working’ is one of the traits that Gryffindor students claim over Slytherins in this dynamic, perhaps it’s only expected that Hufflepuff be the first house to naturally ally with them (in Chamber of Secrets, Justin Finch-Fletchley and his fellow Hufflepuffs are the first students we meet who are neither Slytherin nor Gryffindor). In Deathly Hallows, the Hufflepuffs field the second largest number of students who choose to stay behind and fight against Voldemort. In fact, it’s a Hufflepuff, Ernie Macmillan, who suggests staying behind to fight at all:

..as Harry skirted the walls, scanning the Gryffindor table for Ron and Hermione, Ernie Macmillan stood up at the Hufflepuff table and shouted, ‘And what if we want to stay and fight?’

These two houses are natural allies, both housing the more ‘earthy’, friendly sorts of people, those who focus on getting the ‘right’ thing done.

So that means…: Technically, if the world were fair and split along equal lines, the Ravenclaws would ally with the Slytherins. Both houses privilege something which is, to be completely honest, much more easily verifiable than ‘courage’ and ‘loyalty’. You can check a person’s genealogy to ascertain their wizarding ancestry; you can set an exam and see who scores the highest to verify a certain brand of academic intelligence. Both are equally narrow in their choice of students, and cater to elites of different kinds: the preppy kids and the nerds, or, the blue bloods and the Gifted and Talented.

But that definition of ‘Gifted and Talented’ is broad and obscure enough to include both Terry Boot, who recognizes and appreciates a Protean Charm and Luna Lovegood, who is quite brilliant in a slightly less-than-conventionally-academic way.

luna 1Suitably airy: The only Ravenclaw student with any substantial role in the books is Luna Lovegood, who is a bit of an oddity in her own house. She doesn’t seem to have any other close Ravenclaw friends, and her housemates bully her by hiding her things every year. Because she’s such a loner in her own house, we don’t get a good glimpse of how dynamics play out within groups of Ravenclaws, something we are privileged enough to witness with all the other houses.

A better phrase: The Sorting Hat says that Ravenclaw is the place where ‘those of wit and learning/Will always find their kind’. These are the kids who ‘have a ready mind’, who at the tender age of 11 are scouted out as smarter, more academically inclined than their peers. What that really means, I think, is that these kids are more likely to view a problem in a rational, logical manner and find a creative solution, rather than go at it with swords raised (Gryffindors), sneak around it (Slytherins) or bulldoze their way through no matter how long it may take (Hufflepuffs).  The Ravenclaws value the ability to think calmly through a crisis—evidenced by the fact that their password is a riddle. No matter what your emergency, you have to answer the question, not just memorise a random word, to get through.

Curiouser and curiouser: For some reason, when I think of Ravenclaw I think of Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe it’s because Luna vaguely resembles her, but I think it’s also that curious sense of detachment that the house as a whole seems to lunagive off. The Ravenclaws are supposed to honour logic and reason above all else, to make cold calculations that will lead them to the best means, or most ‘intelligent’ means to achieve an objective. For this, you have to have an open mind, and no sort of personal bias against the different means available. For the ideal Ravenclaw, there should be no question of ‘evil’ and ‘good’—things must look either rational or irrational, and then be worked towards accordingly. Nothing can be accepted or refuted without an effort to prove it.

This makes them, to me, a very safe, neutral sort of house. It seems as though the kids here are the only ones who can really choose who they want to be, or who they want to side with. I wouldn’t be surprised if this with the one house whose alum were split down the middle when it came to Voldemort’s policies, indeed, it seems to me the one house where these policies could have been debated at all.

ravenclaw crestThe traditional Ravenclaw colours of blue and bronze only bolster this idea. Blue, traditionally the colour associated with calm, peace, reason. Bronze, the metal used to forge the scales used by all the students in Hogwarts. Scales for measuring, weighing, balancing.

I think Ravenclaw’s curiously fleeting role in the Harry Potter series is fitting. This is a House whose students are not determined by where they’re from, where they are right now, or what they do in Hogwarts. This is a house whose students think outside of it and beyond it, where they are not slapped with obvious loyalties and allegiances the moment they walk away from the Hat. They’re not all ‘bad’,they’re not all ‘heroes’ and they’re certainly not all expected to be utterly loyal to one another above everything else.

It would be nice to be a Ravenclaw, I think. Unfortunately, given my tendency to let emotions cloud my judgment and to privilege reckless daring and ambition over logic, the probability of my ending up in that beautiful, circular common room is pretty darn low. It’s under the lake or up in the other tower for me.

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?

Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.