There’s a couple of things I wanted to talk about because they’re related and there’s a few sources that sort of brought all of this up. The first source was reading and listening to an interview with author Junot Diaz. The second source came from multiple places and focused on a sort of literary festival type feel and how it’s become very commodified. The third source just came from a discussion with a friend about my plans for Elves of the Old West.
I’ll start there with the last one, because it sort of moves on into the interview with Junot Diaz. This is gonna be long, so I’ll put a cut in here and if you want to read more, click it.
The discussion I had yesterday about elves and fantasy characters and how I’m portraying them was rather interesting. What was being told to me came from an area of very Eurocentric, white male privilege. The person just could not understand how I had chosen to first use women as the protagonists, and second, step outside of the area of the normally viewed aspect of elves. Which happens to be either Celtic folklore (read, Tolkien style elves), or elves based in Dungeon & Dragons settings, where the only elves with dark skin are the Drow and are considered inherently evil.
To answer the first part, I explained that using female characters as protagonists would automatically set the story aside as different from other stories. The majority of fantasy stories (at least, the more popular ones in mainstream literature, television and movies) all have male protagonists who drive the story. In this, I wanted the focus changed to female. Women see the world differently then men, they strategize, analyze and focus on different needs then men do. Women are also incredibly resourceful. And I wanted to try and focus on that aspect.
For the second part, it took a lot of history explaining to get this person to understand. Europe was not the center of the world, other cultures had their own stories. For one of my characters, Pania, she is very much a stereotypical Tolkien style, D&D elf. Fair skinned, fair haired, loves music and dancing and has a flair for the dramatic. All in good fun. But Shani’s background had to come from some place different so as to distinguish each character as an individual. Thus I started researching, and thus I settled on making Shani Metis. Her father was European French and her mother was Mohawk.
The Mohawk, Iroquois and Ojibwa had their own folklore which contained elves. The elves lived in the forests and protected the humans from the different evil, venomous creatures that would come out at night. That’s not the first time that First Nations People and elves have been mentioned together. I still have a book written by Mary Alma Dillman called In The Land of the Mic Macs: Of Elves and Indians. At a very young age, that was my first introduction to the combining of those two cultures. In the book itself there was an elven character who was Mic Mac. So it stands to reason that the first people to populate North America all had their own folklore about Elves. It’s most likely that each different nation, from Cree to Apache to Seminole to Mohawk to Inuit, to Cherokee, and even possibly going back to the ancient Aztecs and Mayan cultures, all had stories about elves. North America and South America are large continents, but they’re land masses that can easily be traveled by the hardiest explorers.
This ties in well with the interview with Junot Diaz, because he discusses masculinity, femininity, and even talks about language. In his book, he intermingles Spanish, English and inserts Spanglish throughout his book. In one interview he mentions how some people will read a book that’s one third Elvish, yet they’ll believe that people are being alienated when you write a couple of sentences in Spanish.
This inspired me for something with Elves of the Old West. And only means I need to do more research.
But what if Shani would spout a phrase or two in the Mohawk language, and Pania would say something in Irish Gaelic. And the two would know exactly what the other said without explanation. Therein lies the really interesting part. I’ve often thought that the elves of this world would have a good knowledge of the other languages throughout their world, so it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear someone hold a conversation in Gaelic, switch to Greek, then switch to one of the Norse languages, and finally switch to Arabic. Without skipping a beat. Granted, not all elves would be this fluent, but it would be commonplace enough.
Which brings up another point, that being about the perception of other cultures that I tried to explain to my friend last night. We live in a very Eurocentric, Western world in this 21st Century. The belief is that other cultures, those in the Middle East, Africa, South West Asia, and some countries in the Pacific Rim, are less civilized than the West. That they’ve always been backwards, barbaric, uneducated, and war like. That complete statement is so far from the truth.
While Europeans were still scratching around in the dirt, nations in the Middle East were developing a huge cultural, educational, artistic and philosophical Renaissance. This change dwarfed the one that happened in Europe. Baghdad was the cultural epicenter of this movement, with the world’s largest library. Books were brought in from many different regions of the explored world and translated into the local languages. When the Silk Road grew, not only was trade passed back and forth, but so was language, customs, culture and religion. There are some who say that Islam was a conquering religion, that those who followed its practice invaded regions and took them by force, making the populace follow the path of Islam. This also is so completely far fetched.
What was common during the time of the Silk Road, was for those in distant regions to learn about the cultures of those with whom they traded commodities. For many of the upper class and ruling class, it became fashionable to convert to the religion of those they dealt with, and eventually the populace would follow. So when Islamic merchants traveled to North and West Africa, many of the African nations began to follow Islam, because it was fashionable and they wanted to leave a very good impression on those with whom they traded goods.
Researching history, and reading what happened before is incredibly helpful in crafting a fantasy story. I’m not sure if I changed my friend’s mind or enlightened him in anyway (I’ve found he suffers greatly from cognitive dissonance), but I at least hope he’ll try to remember this and start looking into history more.
I’ve rambled on a lot more than I wanted to, and my fingers are tired from all the typin’. So my next part on the commodifying of literature is going to have to wait for a while.