December 23, 2007

Deep Thoughts in B&W, Stories to "Watch" & Etc.

Via SF Signal, Neil Gaiman is offering a sneek preview of "not quite final" Coraline footage!
A few days ago Robin Brande posted about her moral corruption, and linked to this NY Times piece about the generational divide in copyright morality. I have to admit to having been on the fence about a couple of things, but many of Robin's commenting audience made the situation personal when they talked about their books. Would it be okay for someone to download your books and share them for free? What makes movies and music any different? Thought provoking.

Another thought-provoking discussion started at the YA YA YA's, and it's on the subject of class in young adult literature.

Class is something difficult to define. For me it's often tied into race or education, but reading a novel that's distinctly about class but isn't written in medieval times is unusual. I more often find reading on the topic of class in characters of South Asian descent, or novels set in South Asian countries. The striations of class seem much clearer in some cultures. Last year's YA Cybil nominee, Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet dealt with a girl who faced prejudice in her country not because of her race, but because of the shade of her skin color. This can definitely be seen as a class issue, as lighter-skinned girls in her community were expected to marry better and have more wealth.

Class may not be seen on the surface as an issue which concerns the dominant culture -- because pinker skin equals privilege most of the time, and there have been many discussion on the assumption of that privilege that readers make automatically. That's why Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Prom was surprising and satisfying to many readers -- Ashley was definitely from a blue-collar family -- and some of the Australian books I've read. Markus Zusak's Fighting Ruben Wolfe is definitely a novel that shakes away preconceptions about how people live. The protagonist is gritty and rough -- but a good person with goals and dreams the same as a suburban character.

Fantasy Magazine had some really interesting things to say on this topic this past week, as they continued their discussion on people of color in fantasy literature. One telling comment to me about class and race came from Nora Jemisin, an African-American writer who’s had a number of fantasy short stories published in Strange Horizons, Helix, and elsewhere.

"Much of the problem with depictions of PoC [People of Color] by white authors is that they fall back on clich├ęd tropes or ham-handed one-dimensional characterization. Whereas with white characters, they try harder. It’s not just bad writing, it’s bad writing aided and abetted by screwed-up notions of race, gender, etc."

Class is trickier in fantasy novels, as so many story forms come from Cinderella -- the rags to riches, servant-to-king is a classic -- and sometimes tiring -- story tradition. In modern and urban fantasy, the class issue differs. Who is interacting with the supernatural element? Is it a person of color? If they're Latino, we can call the story magical realism. If they're Asian, it's just Asian literature -- after all, ancestors and spirits walking around are normal, as with African American stories, since voodoo dolls and curses are depicted as just part of life. However, if a Caucasian character interacts with the supernatural, that is unusual, and can thus be seen as fantasy (because the default setting of most readers is to see all characters as part of the dominant culture, and the idea is that they're smart enough to know better than to believe in the supernatural. That's a racial thing, but class is inextricably linked in there as well, because intellectuals in our society are science-minded. Minorities are not the ones depicted as knowing anything about science...).Interesting, isn't it? I encourage you to read both halves of the discussion. Some good thoughts for when you have time.

I missed posting this in time for Hanukkah, but Ellen Kushner's The Golden Dreidel sounds really cool for the chapter book set.

I blogged about digital books last January, and enjoyed reading inanimate alice. It's a great, three part digital story to explore if you have some downtime this break. Chapter four is supposed to come this month, stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the PROM shout-out. One of the reasons I wrote it is that the working class kids I knew were really sick of reading about rich kids, OR, on the rare occasions when working class teens were in a novel, all of their problems stemmed from their poverty, which is a crappy bias commonly found among the middle and upper classes (even writers).

My editor, Sharyn, had an interesting correspondence with an adult reader of PROM who was horrified that I wrote the book from the perspective of an African-American. Sharyn pointed out that the main character and her family are, in fact, of Irish descent, and that Ashley points this out many, many times.

The reader (can't remember if it was a teacher or librarian or a grad student) was suitably even more horrified when she realized that she had assumed I was writing about black people because I was writing about poor people.

The mind boggles.

Thanks for all the great discussions here!

Laurie Halse Anderson

tanita✿davis said...

You do get sick of rich characters -- and it happens in adult lit too -- how many Jimmy Choo wearing editorial assistants in New York City can there be?? -- but it's really disheartening in YA lit., because it's the attack of the pretty people times one million. You think it's not enough to have to face that everyone in your school has an iPod and a Wii but you, but it's like that even in fiction? UGH. Not everybody lives like that, and I think it's important to show that those who don't aren't all people of color on welfare, either...I really loved Prom for that.

But I am DEEPLY weirded out that someone thought Ashley was an African American...

Thanks for dropping by!

Saints and Spinners said...

I've got parts of Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland burned into my brain like a series of Monty Python sketches, and what she pointed out about race seems to be so thematic of the fantasy literature I've read: the main character has brown skin with blue or green eyes. Red hair is a bonus, because of course that's exotic too. As far as class goes-- doesn't it always seem like rags to riches? One notable folktale that doesn't follow those lines is the one that Margot Zemach's It Could Always Be Worse is based upon: the main character complains about his lot in life, the rabbit has him pile more and more animals into his house, and then when the main character finally gets to make all of the extra animals move out, the house seems so quiet and peaceful by comparison that the main character is grateful for his lot in life.