Article: SFF as metaphor: aliens, vampires, foreigners and immigrants
I was going to do a coherent blog post on this, but I just could never find a structure that would work. So I decided to follow twitter advice (thanks to Dave Bretton!), and take a baseball bat to my argumentation.
Accordingly and for your reading pleasure, a series of disjointed observations on the use of aliens and supernatural creatures in SFF:
-When you portray a group of funky-looking people with odd customs who either live on different planets, or try to integrate in a modern human society–whether you consciously want it or not, you’re bringing to mind real-life parallels. Namely, respectively non-Western countries (during the colonial era or during the globalisation era, depending on your portrayal), and immigrant communities.
If you don’t believe me, put side-by-side the following: someone travels to a foreign planet and describes the sights; and someone else (of the somewhat clueless variety) travels to, say, Vietnam or China, and describes what they’ve seen, and what odd customs those people follow, or what odd things they eat. Or try this one: a group living on the margins of society (or within society but still not integrated), hiding their extent of their difference from a fearful and prejudiced mainstream; and say, the situation of Muslisms in modern-day US. See how broadly similar they are?
-This is then reinforced by choosing to depict, say, specism/racism against your aliens/vampires and basing it (because you have to) on real-life examples.
-This then poses some serious problems, because as a parallel, this suffers from a very deep flaw. Vampires are rightly discriminated against because they feed on blood and kill human people; the fae have wild and dangerous magic and toy with human lives; and aliens really are different species.
Foreigners and immigrants are none of these. They’re human; they have no special magical powers; and above all, they don’t make a habit of hunting down human people or drinking their blood. All of these have been used against POCs/minorities at some point: the different species to justify racial classification; the magical powers in what I call the “mystical East” clichés (but also in tropes like the Magical Negro or The Native American In Tune With Nature); and the drinking of blood in stuff like blood libel.
Making those features literally true for otherworldly creatures, and drawing explicit parallels between treatment of those creatures and the treatment of existing people is hugely problematic. Because the main reason all those treatments are utterly wrong-headed is… they’re not true. Foreigners aren’t magically different species.
-Assuming you’re depicting racial prejudice against said creatures–the other reason it’s problematic is that it’s very often accompanied by a total lack of actual prejudice against actual foreigners. Aka the “we have solved this stuff already” fallacy. I find it disturbing to assume that in an alternate New York City that reads like today’s New York City with added magic, people can be so outspoken against vampires/werewolves/etc., and not have prejudice against Hispanics, Blacks, Asians, LGBT people… Bonus point for UFs in which the vampires/fae/werewolves remain a secret community, and people who don’t know about the existence of such communities are still not racist… Yeah, like that’s a realistic depiction of the world.
Equally puzzling is that in the far future, humanity will magically have become this homogeneous mass that has let go of cultural conflicts. Honestly, so far we’ve shown remarkable capacity to pick new sets of prejudices as our immediate spheres became larger and larger (first communities and villages, then countries; and now the world, to an extent and with problems ): I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t continue doing this as mankind spreads to other planets!
-The specific comparison of UF supernatural creatures to immigrants and minorities is also problematic because in many books, it ends up putting such a high value on “normal” society (by which read heterosexual, White and American)–even more so than if it was just immigrants trying to fit in. It’s… something like this: when even immortal vampires, fairies, etc. feel so good about US high schools or US cities that all they really want to do is join in the fun, you basically have a narrative that reinforces the superiority of the “normative” society over all other expressions (sure, sometimes this is depicted as something enforced through lack of choice , but by and large the Fae/vampires do a surprisingly good job of fitting into human society). The pinnacle of achievement becomes joining a biology class in high school (I’m looking at you, Twilight): the centre of the world is humans and their values, and not the other way around. Now replace “humans” with “White male” (or dominant paradigm), and “fae” with POC/LGBT/etc. See how problematic it all becomes?
-Bonus points: the handling of “mixed-race” people. Those include alien/human crossbreeds (though these are rare); supernatural creatures/human crossbreeds, and the odd ones out like changelings, humans raised by aliens. I have yet to find a book that doesn’t make a huge splattering mess of things.
A couple of things not to do (and that I’ve seen in books!): mixed-race people aren’t suicidal or depressive because they hover on the cusp of two cultures. They’re also seldom in a position to actually draw little boxes and list their habits and physical traits, and separate them into mother’s stuff/father’s stuff. Except in very specific cases, sentences like “he had the beautiful exotic features of his father, but his true beauty came from his German mother” are not only racist as heck, but also quite unrealistic. And uh, not every mixed-race child will end up making an explicit choice of their father’s side or their mother’s side at the expense of everything else (I’m somewhat wondering, though, how much that is true in the US, which seems to have an odd elusion of mixed-race identity. If you’re mixed Chinese and White, you seem to magically become Chinese or White, but you can’t be both. Can someone from the US confirm or infirm that?).
Also. Wow. Now that I’m looking at the whole list I’m becoming quite depressed about some aspects of genre. I think I need a stiff tea…
Feel free to comment/discuss/disagree below, I’m off to write some novel chapters…
 Aka: globalisation and the disparity of power it brings, but that’s a whole other blog post!
 The encroachment of humanity on, say, fae lands goes back to one of the points above: it presents an explicit parallel between Fae and Native populations, which does two things. One, it presents colonisation and expropriation as pretty much inevitable, and narratively-sanctioned. Two–remember the “Native Americans are Magical Beings in Tune with Nature” fallacy?
(picture credits: woodleywonderworks on Flickr)
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A good example of vampire as ‘other’ and as an expression of the fear of immigration and all the ‘pollution’ that entails is ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
How much do you think this has grown out of the SF tradition of using aliens, etc as analogs for minorities because such topics couldn’t be addressed openly in mainstream media? I’m not saying that excuses anything (particularly the really wrong-headed stuff that doesn’t even accurately reflect the corresponding human social situation), because it’s not the 1960s any more – but it might explain where at least some of it is coming from…
Now what about magical people who are *not* harmful or dangerous? There’s also a bunch of those in SFF.
As a mixed-race person, I would also say that it’s just impossible to generalize our situation. Looks-wise, I look Asian, but not quite Asian. Culturally, I am actually torn between my French and my Canadian citizenship (not to mention I live in English in the French-speaking part of Canada… I mean, it’s really messed up). I think the idea that we’re equal part dad’s culture and mom’s culture erases mom and dad’s own identities, which may or may not be monolithic.
That brings us back to the problem or drawing a parallel between race and species: being a fantastical creature is in your “nature”; an ethnic type is only a matter of *looks*. Of course other people will remind you of your looks even if *you* forget, but that doesn’t mean they define you. Not in any direct, simple way, at any rate.
Karen: yes, very much so, it’s a very scary read (also fear of sexuality, I think–it’s very clear in the book).
Anne: I’m not sure, to be honest? I’m not a scholar of SF and I don’t really know enough about that kind of stuff to say anything smart. I would suspect that partly, yes, but yeah, it doesn’t excuse some of the stuff that’s still ongoing… (the whole aliens/colonisation thing is pre-1960ies though. On that one, more inclined to think that pulp fiction could no longer use other countries as a destination for thrilling adventures because, er, people would check and get angry, and turned to making stuff up on other planets).
The “normative” nature of white American culture in UF and how “others” deal with it (and it deals with others) is, indeed, something that keeps me from going near most UF (there are a few other factors which I won’t go into here). You rightly mention Twilight, in which 100-year-old vampires want nothing more than to go to school and hang with teenagers. Sure, I understand why it’s written that way, but at any examination beyond the incredibly superficial this just screams WRONG WRONG WRONG in so many ways. The great majority of long-term relationships are based on more than simple physical attraction; they only root is there’s enough commonality of personality (much, but not all, of which comes from cultural background –I’ll get on to the mixed-race stuff in a minute) and quite what a 100-year-old vampire and a teenage American girl are supposed to have in common I really don’t know. But Twilight is selling the common pablum of destined soulmates, that has a huge appeal to people of a certain age (and, I suspect, a certain cultural background; I’d be interested to know how well Twilight has gone down in, say, India or the Philippines…). The soulmate thing is a common fantasy trope, after all. I yearn, sometimes, to read fantasies where the MC has relationships that DON’T work out; in general, it seems that the moment an MC hits a relationship then that is THE DESTINED ONE (or, if you’re Anita Blake, it’s THE DESTINED ONE OF THE DESTINED MANY… shudder). In life, staing together with your first love is the exception, and indeed the whole idea that there is one destined/true/right partner is problematic in a number of ways. But I think I’m getting sidetracked.
Now of course this line of reasoning in terms of “what makes a relationship work” can be taken as proposing that cross-cultural relationships aren’t workable at all, and I’m not trying to say that (after all, it can be reasonably effectively argued that all heterosexual relationships, at least, are cross-cultural). So let’s get into cross-cultural relationships. I’m a Brit married to an American, and while that’s a fairly bridgeable cultural divide (and we’re both very very white), there IS a divide there. Were we to have children, would they really have to “choose” between her culture and mine? Of course not. They’d probably grow up with one cultural background more dominant than the other, but they’d absorb elements of both, and while at times they might have to make some choices (trivial example: outgoing American vs reserved Brit – do you introduce yourself, and hug people readily, or do you wait to be introduced and shake hands at best?), there’s no way they would have to reject one parental heritage entirely. Now I’ll accept that, the bigger the cultural divide between the parents, the more of these choices might need to be made (we can posit a human-vampire child deciding whether to eat steak or drink blood…), but they are choices that are made at an individual level, not a blanket “all-or-nothing”. Any child can only be a melding of cultures, no matter how strongly they lean to one or the other. And yes, rationalising some of those cultural differences can be difficult, and exploring one culture that you feel inadequately exposed to (e.g. if a child has a parent of one culture but no other connection to much of that culture) can be an important part of someone’s development (I get the impression this is exactly what you’re currently doing – exploring the Vietnamese side of your heritage because hitherto the French has been overly dominant; someone growing up in Vietnam of French and Vietnamese origins might be doing the exact opposite); but exploring your Vietnamese background does not and should not mean rejecting your Frenchness in its entirety, and to pretend that somehow the two are completely incompatible and that you can only ultimately “choose” one would be absurd. So yes, that is an area that needs far more sensitive handling in SFF – and hopefully, will start to receive it, as more and more cross-cultural writers emerge into an environment that is, albeit slowly and patchily, becoming more aware of cross-culturalism.
As for the side note of US mixed-race identity… it’s very complicated and it will depend who you ask (one of the things I do get asked a lot since moving here is “how do Americans do X” or “how do Americans see Y”, as if there were a single answer; any culture, even American culture which is often perceived from outside as pretty monolithic, is simply wayyy too nuanced/fragmented to have a single response to that). Robin went to a school that was pretty mixed (in LA, that’s the norm, though there are exceptions in some more culturally monolithis neighbourhoods). Two of the schoolfriends she is still in touch with are Asian-American (which seems to be the common terminology in my experience). Both are married, one to a guy who visually is one of the whitest guys you have ever seen (absolute archetypal Germanic blond), the other to a guy who’s Hispanic. Both, in turn, have two young kids and it will be interesting to see how those children are seen as they grow up. There certainly are some people for whom the slightest “taint” to the white purity of one’s racial background trumps any amount of whiteness (you only have to go back to race laws in which “passing” for white was against the law – i.e. even if you looked white, if you had black ancestry you were “really” black; that’s pretty scary and while such things are not enshrined in law any more, for some people they are very much enshrined in culture). But for other people, and I suspect this particularly applies to many of those who grew up in cities like New York, LA, SF, Miami and others that really are melting pots of immigration and mergings of multiple cultures, then “it ain’t no thing” (which is not to say there aren’t bastions of racial/cultural intolerance in all of those cities – and across different racial groups; we must remember that while white-vs-other racism may be the predominant paradigm, it is certainly NOT the only form out there).
Asia M: hum, I have far fewer problems with “harmless” creatures, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any–can you give me examples?
And yes, definitely all mixed-race people will have different behaviours and relationships with their heritage; but most of what I’ve seen is very caricatural (and very consistent). The worst one was probably the one who picked lobotomy over being “torn between two worlds”. Thing is, when it’s the only mixed-race in the book and they make that choice, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth…
Wait, someone would choose to have their BRAIN PARTLY REMOVED because they couldn’t reconcile mixed heritage? I mean, I can see how it can be read as a statement of how bad intolerance is (“neither side will accept me”) but that just scrams “hey, don’t bother trying, just destroy yourself instead”. Which is, y’know, not healthy. Shudder.
Yeah, I agree with your post, Aliette. Whenever I hear authors talking on panels about SF & UF as racial/minority metaphor, I cringe. Vampires and werewolves and whatever else CAN’T stand in for my minority status. They just can’t. And it makes me wonder if these writers are holding themselves too high on a pedestal, as if they’re not actually setting out to write stories but that they listened too much during their literature classes when their teachers asserted that Everything Must Have Meaning that ties in with the modern world.
Why can’t a story be about just what it says it is, a “What if?” situation where we have vampires and werewolves who live among us? Why do they HAVE to stand in for something? Why can’t they just simply exist and then we explore “What happens” when we pose the what-if question? Or is that too simple?
– – –
You asked this :
>And uh, not every mixed-race child will end up making an explicit choice of their father’s side or their mother’s side at the expense of everything else (I’m somewhat wondering, though, how much that is true in the US, which seems to have an odd elusion of mixed-race identity. If you’re mixed Chinese and White, you seem to magically become Chinese or White, but you can’t be both. Can someone from the US confirm or infirm that?).
Unfortunately, my cousin who is mixed-race white-American and black-Jamaican gets called nasty names at school because she’s mixed. She became hugely depressed about it. So she decided to give up her ‘white heritage’ completely and ‘become black’. Her parents decided that giving up one heritage completely was a bad idea, so they’re going to go on a tour through all the European countries her father descends from, to show that things aren’t so clear-cut as people tend to believe here, and that there’s more to heritage than skin color and looks.
But yeah, America has a tendency to exclude one heritage or the other, due to laws set up to regulate slavery centuries ago, as Brian mentioned above. More recently, things have been changing, however. So now we have terms like “African-American”, “Chinese-American”, and so on, which try not to exclude one or the other heritage. Still not perfect, but we’re making progress. -.-
The aliens as minorities is a trope that goes back to some of the earliest days of science fiction.
Brian: ha, that’s a looong answer, thanks for typing all that 🙂 Not sure I can tackle everything, but to get the easy stuff out of the way: Twilight has been, insofar as I know, a huge bestseller in Vietnam (my grandmother read it–OK, she didn’t understand much of it, due to I suspect a huge generation and cultural chasm, but still, goes to show how much it spread). On mixed heritages, yup, very much agree that what’s lacking at the moment is nuance in the way this stuff is handled, but I don’t think most of the choice you make are conscious? I mean, if I take myself as an example, there’s some pretty obvious stuff that can be traced (the eyes, the tendency to cook with chopsticks, the taste for cheese); but I don’t really make a difference in how I behave and think between French and Vietnamese, if that makes sense? It’s all of a piece and it’s really hard to separate when you’re the person making those decisions; and very hard to know, when you have a given reflex, where it comes from! (I used to think I was completely French until I hung out with more Vietnamese, and went, uh, hang on, this isn’t French at all…).
And yeah, I agree mixed race is handled very differently in the US depending on where you’re talking about: I was more commenting on mainstream culture, which is the bit of the US we see from abroad 🙂
Also, yes, I’m sad to say the lobotomy thing is for real in a real book. I saw red at that point…
That Twilight is huge in Vietnam depresses me, I think. I guess I’d kind of hoped its appeal was not as cross-cultural as that 🙁
And yes, I wasn’t necessarily implying the need for conscious choice in mixed-race heritage. But I was trying to imply that a choice to be heritage A in instance A does not imply that you will choose to be heritage A in instances B, C and so forth.
Laura’s cited instance is depressing, and does show it certainly is possible, in some cross-cultural instances, to be shunned by both cultures to which one is heir. But hopefully the complete shunning of one root culture is indeed a temporary thing – as is the needless abuse of someone who is seen as “different”. (Germ of idea planted; dealing with a culture in which EVERYONE is seen as different – no tribalism, no factions, no us-and-them… file and forget…)
Laura: wow, a day for long answers. Thank you for clarifying the whole tangle of race relationships in the US. And sorry about your cousin. Sounds she’s been having a horrible time, and I hope she finds a saner environment soon.
>Why can’t a story be about just what it says it is, a “What if?” situation where we have vampires and werewolves who live among us? Why do they HAVE to stand in for something?
I wonder if it’s not also about, er, lack of imagination? It’s easier to base the experiences of your supernatural creatures on something that exists? It’s also… whenever you say, “we have a community of supernatural creatures that live among us, like ordinary people”, it’s a bit tricky because you immediately bring those parallels to mind. You’d basically need to smash the cliché by making the creatures not integrate in expected ways–not even sure if that’s even possible?
Paul: yes, I thought that was the case, thanks for confirming it!
re: US racial politics.
This is a hard question for me to answer, being the white male that I am. I haven’t noticed much fuss being made over anyone’s racial makeup, but then I live in a suburb that is basically Korea Town + a ton of Eritrean refugees. Watching my kids though, they seem to consider themselves primarily American (we’ll see if that changes after 6 weeks in Japan this summer), but their closest friends are mostly US-born Asians. Hmm. That said, my daughter’s best friend at school is a Chinese girl whose favorite food is her dad’s authentic Jambalaya. What does it all mean???
Brian: he, there’s even a word for European vampires, and when you don’t speak Vietnamese it sounds like “macaroon” 😀 Seriously though, the concept of soul mates specifically wouldn’t pose a problem (and Grandma got it pretty easily. There’s a similar concept, which is people tied with a red thread before birth–and who find each other. Also, plenty of stories about destined love through reincarnation etc.). What Grandma couldn’t understand was: why the vampires had no jobs and spent their time in high school, and why Bella and Edward didn’t get married already and stop throwing all that fuss. I, er, couldn’t think of anything smart to say at that point?
I’m inclined to be pessimistic: the “them-vs-us” is pretty ingrained in biology, and so far we’ve seen a moving of the boundaries (it used to be, say, the people from the next village, now it’s the nasty immigrants); but no lessening of actual prejudice. I suspect we’ll always find a target to be prejudiced against….
Brittain: I have no idea! But my group of friends also includes Asians, and when my sis and I compare with other people from our high school, we’re definitely more… culturally open than they are (they’re still hanging out with French White people, not to put too fine a point on it :D). It’s hard to draw rules or hard-and-fast conclusions…
>I wonder if it’s not also about, er, lack of imagination? It’s easier to base the experiences of your supernatural creatures on something that exists?
That’s true. I guess I just figured it would be easier to follow causality (“If blood-sucking, then xyz”) rather than base them off cases that are currently existing in our culture. Since, well, we don’t really accept cannibals or lepers or people who say they’ve seen ghosts or angels…which seems to me to be closer real-life parallels….
I suspect that the West Coast basically lives in the cultural future. Or, I hope it does, because the alternative is discouraging. My kids’ generation will be the litmus test of how we handle multi-ethnicity here, since I think people like me, no matter how well intentioned, won’t be the ones to make the change.
How this relates to writing, I don’t know. I’m just a musician. :p But I see that you’re once again an agenda setter in the SFF community. I bet you never expected that!
My mother read Twilight in Spanish. Crap gets read everywhere! Popularity breeds popularity.
I hated Lord of the Rings for this reason. Oh, so Elfs are X and Dwarfs can only be Y?
I have no idea why an immortal vampire would want to attend high school unless they are stunted and can’t grow past a certain mental age. In which case, if you are always 14 hanging out with 14 year-olds makes sense.
I never thought about mixed-race identification issues because I am mestizo, just like most Mexicans. Though, to be fair, we have plenty of post-colonial mental issues with our fixation on white skin as beautiful & good.
My 2 cents.
I grew up in Miami, Florida, so even though I’m white I don’t really feel easy being around just white people. I always feel like “where’s everyone else?” (“And for God’s sake can we talk about something besides sports and hunting, and can we play something else besides country music?”) The way Americans in other parts of the country seem to glob together in groups of like ethnicities just weirds me out. Not that Miami was ever a paradise of amity and cooperation between the races, but (at least thirty years ago) people didn’t just stick with their group and treat everyone else as an outsider. You made friends with whoever shared your interests.
As to the aliens = downtrodden minorities trope in scifi, it’s quite popular in television and the movies. I assume (mostly because they usually tell me outright at some point) that this is done not for the story benefit but to Teach A Valuable Lesson. What’s funny is this almost always fails, because the alien is supposed to be standing in for, say, African-Americans, yet he’s the one with the laser cannons and telling us he’s going to exterminate us and in general just being dicks. Actual Lesson Learned: minorities are dicks, don’t trust them, they’ll blow up your house with you in it for the lulz. Doctor Who is a repeat offender of long standing; and the new show is little better than the old, especially with the way it makes the Doctor emo about having to commit “genocide” on the Daleks. (And then they came back–and he still emo’d! I wanted to stab my television.)
Aliette de Bodard
Laura: I think (but am not sure) it’s possible to do something smart, but it’s probably going to take a lot of imagination, and the dynamics of, say, vampire communities would be very different from Chinese communities. But yeah, drinking blood would definitely be less socially acceptable 🙂
Brittain: I like being an agenda setter 😀
Silvia: yeah, Twilight got everywhere, didn’t it? 🙁
About racial identification: it’s not something that’s ever loomed large for me, I admit–there are very different racial/cultural/social dynamics in France (not to say we don’t have our own horrid problems, but the axes are somewhat different). But most of the stuff I read in SFF follows what I assume are mainstream American ways of identification (“the either/or with little ticky boxes”, as I think of it in my more uncharitable moments. And, as usual, then extends that to foreign countries without wondering if the social fabric might not be a teensy bit different…).
I suspected it might also be different in Mexico (for widely differing reasons of course), but wasn’t sure–thanks for confirming it!
Excellent post! Thanks for phrasing so succinctly some issues that have been amorphously bugging me for a while.
Something I’ve never really understood about the SFF/UF/YA/fantasy community in general is the predisposition towards reading and writing about cultures, settings and social dichotomies that are heavily based on what we already know; which are generic or familiar. A big part of why I read fantasy is because it takes me out of the world and shows me different places; even as a kid, a massive pet peeve was the fact that, in stories like The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland, the heroine would find this awesome new world and then just… come back home again. And I was like, but why would anyone *do* that? Why would seeing all this awesome different stuff produce nothing so much as a longing to leave it behind?
Which is, I think, a similar phenomenon to setting so many UF/YA stories in the real world in contexts where the supernatural elements are trying to mainstream with (white, Western) humanity – as you say, it’s the idea that (white, Western) normalcy is the Best Thing Ever, to the point that even aliens and werewolves and witches prefer it to living in magical worlds of their own. Whereas I tend to prefer – and subsequently write – stories where people from the normal world discover there’s a bigger, more interesting one to explore, and so abandon the former for the latter.
It’s the sort of false logic that dovetails neatly with the excuses people give about including default narrative sexism, cissexism, homophobia and racism into their stories: because as far as they’re concerned, the grounding elements of fantasy – that is, the real human behaviours that make us willing to bend reality in other ways, as with magic – are incomplete without the inclusion of modern prejudice. And I’ve never liked that, because apart from being offensive, not to mention a sign of lazy characterisation and worldbuilding, it’s also just boring to read about. As with the Twilight example, I already know what a high school biology class looks like; just as I know how white privilege can skew my view of the world. So increasingly, unless an author has actively included prejudice in order to dissect it as part of the narrative – as opposed to just leveraging it as an excuse to have all white, straight, predominantly male cis characters running about saving the day – I honestly can’t be bothered.
Silvia said: “I never thought about mixed-race identification issues because I am mestizo, just like most Mexicans.”
Interesting (and wonderful) to hear you say this so openly. In my experience (living in a predominantly Hispanic region, and on a clear day able to see Mexico from where I sit at this keyboard) one thing that I’ve found interesting is how little acknowledgement there is that Hispanic Americans and Mexicans have such a strong Native American component, even though it’s visually fairly clear. Subject to a fairly pervasive racism already from Anglos, I guess there’s a reluctance to appear even more non-European, which is sad.
Great essay! Just a few thoughts I’d add –
“Vampires are rightly discriminated against because they feed on blood and kill human people;”
But in most of these “fantastic racism” stories – at least the ones I’ve read -, vampires do not kill human people most of the time and it’s only the renegade evil vampires that do so…
(to bring a parallel with my own ethnic group, that’s kind of like “Jews don’t perform human sacrifice, only some of them do, the bad ones” – yes I’ve heard that IRL! *headdesk*)
…but still, that makes the discrimination less justified. Variations on the theme I’ve seen include humans voluntarily feeding the vampires with their blood while not dying in the process (this variant usually involves some kind of ‘blood bond’), vampires feeding only on animals, people donating blood that’s distributed to vampires, etc. This last one also appeared in a story I’ve just reviewed.
“When you portray a group of funky-looking people with odd customs who either live on different planets, or try to integrate in a modern human society–whether you consciously want it or not, you’re bringing to mind real-life parallels.”
Also, fictional magical creatures are often built on real-life traditions – vampires are reasonably Western (at least, um, Western-style vampires… yay for circular reasoning ^^;), but if a writer strays away from vampires and does something with, say, “zombies and voodoo”, that’s already a different cultural tradition with ample possibilities for culturefail. :X
BTW Twilight is also huge in Hungary, though the vampire craze was started by Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. But the person who told me to read Twilight was an American Orthodox Jewish man. (Yes. the soul mates thing is very big in Orthodoxy. I’m still looking for mine…) To be honest, the ‘ages-old vampires pose as teenagers’ theme did not bother me while reading – heck, why not, if I were a vampire… >:D – and I admit the assimilationist angle totally went over my head. I can see it now.
What bothered me the most about Twilight was the Magical Indians trope, actually. Though I have complicated feelings about Magical Minorities tropes, maybe I should make a separate post about that… it fits this week’s theme on my blog anyway.
(also, I don’t like “wow, magic is inherently scary and discrimination against magic-users is totally justified”. Even if magic is inherently scary and/or dangerous, this does not necessarily follow. Strangely, I’ve just played two Bioware games which offered totally different views on this. In the Dragon Age series, magic-users are strictly segregated, to the point of being locked up and under guard, while in the Mass Effect series, they experience the occasional xenophobic reaction, but it is by and large not very prevalent, and they are not segregated in any way. Maybe it’s because DA is Euro-fantasy – including all the bad stereotypes -, while ME is Star Wars-esque space opera? IDK… I’m playing DA2 right now and even some of the spells are similar to Mass Effect.)
Due to many post-colonial issues too long to detail, there is wide disdain towards the indigenous people of Mexico and a desire to identify as one who is ‘white’. I was criticized in my youth for my indigenous features (my mother-in-law said I ‘looked like the maid’).
So even though most of us identify as ‘mestizo’ (mixed) we favour ‘white’ features. The important part then does not become the cultural associations (Russian-Mexican) but the physical appearance (white Mexican) and the adoption of mannerisms and practices considered mainstream (speaking Spanish instead of an indigenous tongue). So while we all tick one box (Mexican) no matter our ancestry, a weird social-economical dynamic takes place.
In this sense, if we had a vampire universe in Mexico white Eastern European vampires might be widely accepted due to their European ancestry and features, but you might have Aztec/Mexica vampires denigrated because they are indigenous. Or, European vampires might end up at the top of the totem pole over humans, period. You would also likely have disdainful attitudes towards some foreigners (Asian vampires) and the development of Little Vampire Korea. That’s going by patterns in Mexico City.
Oh, I have SOOOOOOOOOO much to say about this. I’ve been struggling to get a post or five written on these issues — or a series of posts — for a couple of years now. It’s all so tangled, especially in my particular experience as a white male expatriate in a “foreign” culture, a particular experience that puts a different slant on some of this, and may be useful in teasing a few things apart. Maybe. Or not. But this kind of experience is rarely depicted credibly, I’ll note up front.
For now, I’ll sadly report that Twilight is also relatively popular in South Korea. To the point where I can (occasionally) crack jokes in class about how, “Vampires don’t sparkle in the sunlight, they burst into flames and blood sprays out of them like in a Tarantino movie, and then they explode, damn it!” and my students howl with laughter. The first few movies played FOREVER and to big audiences.
As for the rest: more soon.
Oh, except: have you read Paul Park’s Celestis? It does some interesting things with all this: it does humans-as-invaders, aliens-as-subalterns, but that’s at the outset, when the aliens are actively emulating human looks and mental states (through surgery and drugs). Then we get to watch the alien deprived of drugs revert back into the alien state — and you get what was, to human eyes, an exploitative colonial relationship reconfigured as some kind of weird alien symbiosis or something. The reverted alien ends up coming off as so authentically, bafflingly, inhumanly alien that it sort of collapses all the parallels to Earth history and culture and colonialism imposed on the narrative at first. So it’s kind of like a dissection of the SFnal-colonialism trope, I guess.
Oh, and one more thing — you wrote: “…mixed-race people aren’t suicidal or depressive because they hover on the cusp of two cultures. They’re also seldom in a position to actually draw little boxes and list their habits and physical traits, and separate them into mother’s stuff/father’s stuff…” and asked about identity defaults.
I can say that the truth of this probably depends on the prevalent social attitude towards mixed-race people. In Korea, there’s an epithet for them — it sounds like the name of the 70s model “Twiggy” — and while mixed Korean-white people occupy a coveted racial status here (extra beautiful, extra classy, etc.) the reality is that as recently as a few years ago, mixed-race kids finishing high school was considered a “feat”; Hines Ward (a half-Korean/half-African American football player) started a foundation to bring half-black Korean kids to the US, to show them that the whole world didn’t think of them as trash for being half-black. There are growing numbers of mixed-race kids in the countryside (half-Korean, half-Southeast Asian, mainly) and with the (poor) education they’re getting, and weaker job prospects, and high rates of discrimination, they’re very likely to form the lower class of the future here. So, depending on the culture, some mixed-race people are very depressed because of their status, and because of identity issues. (I ended up writing a chapter about that in an English textbook, telling the story of a kid who ends up embracing both halves of his identity — Thai and Korean, I think it was, or Vietnamese and Korean — because that’s not a common notion here. (Here, the pressure is all towards Koreanization of mail-order brides and their kids, and the panic is mixed-race kids will grow up unable to speak Korean. Which sucks, since the identity default for them will likely remain “foreigner” (despite being born here and having no other nationality) for at least the next generation of mixed-race kids.
I guess that’s not “because they hover on the cusp” as much as “because they’re excluded from both” or “because of the costs of being mixed in a homogeneity-fetishizing society” or whatever. But in some places, being mixed-race is prone to making life so much harder that it’d be unsurprising to see much higher rates of depression among the racially mixed there.
That defaulting is exclusionary, though, which is not necessarily like what you describe. This will vary widely by how accepting of racial difference a society is. (The mixed-race people I’ve known in Canada tended either to assert the non-apparent components of their identity, or the non-white components, I think maybe as a reaction to the imposition of a label or identity. The woman we all assumed considered herself “Afro-Canadian” saying, “I’m a member of the Cree Nation” in one class I took comes to mind; or the poet I know who is, if I follow her poetical autobiography correctly, a quarter Chinese, but for whom — in her writing, at least — Chineseness seems to play a very important part, I presume in part in resistance to the normalization of whiteness, and the implications of embracing the alternative. (But the mixedness also seems part of the understanding.)
Foz: aw, thank you! Yes, the whole “normativity” and “white knows best” is fairly… puzzling. Examined prejudice in books would be fabulous (though depicting a magical land of no prejudice feels a bit like cheating–I understand the impulse, it’s just that I’m not sure I want to set up false expectations in my fiction).
Bogi: yeah, the “some of them are evil, but most of them are really nice!” is also used in crime novels for, say, the Russian mafia or the Chinese triads. Simplistic and annoying stuff. I have no idea why you’d want to justify discrimination against magic itself–like you say, it depends a lot on the uses of magic (on which note, I’m frequently peeved at mono-use magic. Come on, there’s got to be more you can do with blood magic than just killing someone!).
Silvia: thank you for the details!
Gord: yeah, I suspected Twilight was going to be big everywhere. Sad and depressing, really…
I have read Paul Parks’ Celestis–I have mixed feelings about it, but darned if I can remember why!
On the whole mixed-race thing: I didn’t really grow up in an environment where it was a plus, believe me (my school was all White and massively prejudiced); and not in a culture where it was considered acceptable either (if you think America is racist, try French old-school aristocracy). I know a lot about identifying as French because my generation had strong pressure to do that; but I never ever had a moment of having a particular reaction and think, “oh, that’s my mother’s way of thinking”. It’s easier with some (but not all) physical features; but with mindsets it’s all but impossible, I think (I was 26 before I figured out that some of the stuff I had taken as my baseline wasn’t 100% French, and I most certainly can’t separate bits, or will ever be in a position to do so).
I also know that being mixed-race has previously been a huge problem in Vietnam, and still is (see “con lai”, one of the worst insults that can be thrown), same as Korea I suspect. It’s just… I understand mixed race people do not have it easy; that you can get rejected from both sides of your experience; that life sometimes suck. I understand where that cliché comes from. Doesn’t mean I approve of propagating it.
And… Higher rates of depression? Sure, I can buy that. Every single mixed race person feeling depressed and suicidal? No way.
How much of an example do you set to mixed race people if all the mixed-race people they see are depressed and contemplating lobotomy rather than live? And yes, I have read books that had them commit to a mental asylum or commit suicide, or choose surgery rather than continue in their state of misery. I’m sorry. This is not what I needed to read as a child, and this is most certainly not what I need to read now, or feel like I want to encourage in any way. Life sucks enough without adding extra fallacious depressions.
I’m Chinese and white from the US. And I can tell you that it’s not that simple. Firstly, there’s the concept of “hypodescent,” which you should know about. It means that in a racial hierarchy, society will assign a mixed race person to the race that is the lowest in the hierarchy. That is, hypodescent operates externally. This is what people generally do: they’ve called me “Chinese” most of my life. In the past decade, through the work of the multiracial movement(s), especially on the west coast, more people have become aware of multiraciality, and now some people call me mixed or hapa or biracial. But “Chinese” is still the default.
Except, of course, for those mixies who look white. That’s a whole other set of issues.
There’s also hyperdescent, which is the opposite: people assigning a mixed race person to the race that is highest on the hierarchy. Where hyperdescent happens is generally within the mixed race family (internally), where the parents and relatives are anxious for the child to get every possible advantage in life.
The only time, in my experience, that hyperdescent has EVER operated externally is when I am with white people and we’re arguing about race and I take a poc position. Then, often, they’ll “point out” that I’m white, too, or “whiter than them,” or not really authentically Asian. Basically they do it to remove my poc “advantage” in the argument.
It also happens with other poc when they want to put me at a disadvantage.
As for being both, NO ONE gets that. There are very few cultures on Earth that have positive language and concepts for ambiguity. The words we use: ambiguous, ambivalent, mixed (up), etc. all have negative connotations, connotations of confusion or lack of clarity.
I’m afraid the problem with accepting hybrid identities has to do with A LOT MORE than just slavery or antimiscegenation laws.
Also, I think you’re mistaking the meaning of the terms “African American” and “Chinese American,” neither of which is hyphenated. African American refers to people of African descent who are Americans. Chinese American refers to people of Chinese descent who are American. The fact that the term “European American” has never taken off, lies in the fact that European Americans, i.e., whites, constitute the norm, the standard of “American” that “African American” and “Chinese American” have to combat.
Neither term refers specifically to mixed race people, although mixed race people can also be African American, Chinese American, or both. The terms were developed to point out to people that, just because you’re Chinese, it doesn’t mean you’re not also American. I’m fifth generation Chinese American on my Chinese grandfather’s side (i.e., my great-great grandfather emigrated to the States, and was Chinese American); my being Chinese doesn’t necessarily mean that I or my parents are immigrants (although, in my case, it does actually mean that.) The fact that you misunderstood the terms means that you have missed the point of the terms.
Mixed race people have a variety of ways of referring to their identities, but if they’re at all aware of the politics surrounding their identities (which MANY are not) then they’ll refer to themselves as biracial, multiracial, mixed, hapa, mutt, or something else recognizable as a mixed race term. If they also use terms like African American or Asian American, they are generally NOT using them to refer to being mixed race.
This attitude drives me up a WALL. I live on the west coast, and I live in THE PRESENT. This life I’ve built for myself, surrounded by smart, active poc who don’t take racial guff from anyone, is a life that I have built with BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS. Many tears, much sweat, a little blood, but mostly from paper cuts. I did not flit, like a mixie fantasy fairy, into a dreamy ether of multiracial parity. And my sparkling, west coast bubble was BUILT, also with blood, sweat, and tears, by generations of poc, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the Black Panthers, the shakers of the Asian American and Brown Power Movements, Yuri Kochiyama, etc, all of whom worked west coast.
We are not in the future. We are in the now, because we fought to make our now more socially just. Putting us in the future just lets you off the hook of the hard work of making YOUR region, and your immediate community, more socially just. If you just approve of us, and hang out passively, the fairy future will just somehow HAPPEN, and you don’t have to do anything. Bleagh!
Ha, not to mention that the future isn’t necessarily more socially just. (One hopes it is, but that’s not a certainty.)
I see what you mean now. My perspective may be skewed by having lived in the world-leader in suicide. (It’s the top killer for all age groups under 40 in South Korea, and depression is rampant though unacknowledged; when celebrities kill themselves, the government uses it as an excuse to build more online censorship, instead of bringing a discussion of South Korea’s mental health epidemic to the public.)
For me, I think this also goes back around to the “generalized” thing: societies where xenophobia is rampant will also have higher rates of sexism and classism (and other bigotries); societies where it is depressingly unacceptable to be mixed-race will have higher rates of depression and suicide generally. It will also be more unacceptable to be old, fat, poor, stupid, taller than average, shorter than average, from certain regions, .
But yeah, every mixed-race person being depressed, or that status putting people in the asylums, sounds hard to swallow — I thought characters dealing with crap usually learn to fight back, stand up for themselves, and so on… I guess I hadn’t seen enough of it in fiction to quite know what you meant.
By the way, I’m not equating being old, fat, or stupid with being mixed-race. Just that the list of socially unacceptable statuses will be long, and lots of people will be depressed for other reasons than being mixed-race.
Claire: thank you for the explanation, it makes a lot more sense! (and, as you might have guessed, it’s something I’m not very familiar with, since French society doesn’t really operate on the same dynamics. In my experience, as a child, I was not French enough for the French, and not Vietnamese enough for the Vietnamese, but it most certainly wasn’t hyperdescent, it was just blanket rejection from both sides…)
Gord: I was ranting mainly against a stereotype (societies have very different perceptions of mixed-race people, though by and large, as Claire says, it’s not a very favourable thing to be). The problem is that I haven’t seen a lot of mixed race characters in fiction; and when I do see them, I want to hurl the book across the room.
And duh. Missed the hyphenated identities in the previous posts, otherwise would have commented myself.
Wow, fantastically interesting post, and then fantastically interesting comments. It got me thinking about the different nature of prejudice against the purely Other living among the mainstream culture or race and prejudice against those who are a mix of an Other group and the mainstream group. You and others have alluded to the problem of not being accepted by either group in the latter situation, and I remember a friend of mine, whose father was African American and whose mother was Japanese, talking about that.
I remember a photo essay I saw in a Japanese newspaper when we lived there in the early 1990s: it was talking about the degree of cultural/ethnic/etc. mixing that does go on in the modern world, and it had a full page of photos of kids with all sorts of mixed parentage–showing, among other things, how possible travel is today, so that you can *have* a kid with a Swedish parent and a Somali parent, or a Laotian parent and a Brazilian parent. Being a photo essay, its main interest was in presenting so many different hues, hair, and facial features, and to show them as a source of human richness and beauty. Of course it was only looks; you couldn’t show syncretism of cuisines or cultural habits or religious traditions, but it was a pleasure to look at, anyway.
Aliette de Bodard
He, thanks for dropping by! And yeah, people often forget that you can be rejected by both groups at the same time (which is a *wonderful* feeling 🙁 ).
That article sounds wonderful. It’s nice to see that there’s huge amounts of mixing going on and that it’s a positive thing rather than a watering-down of some racial purity… And definitely agree on the looks–was discussing it with someone else on twitter the other day, and I think people often forget that different races->different cultures, and that the differences due to that far outweigh the differences due to looks alone!
Apparently my hopeful comment was taken differently than I intended. As a thoroughly white dude, I don’t really have any place to comment on these things in terms of personal experience, etc. All I mean to say is that my kids, Japan born to a Japanese mom, seem to have a better time of it here than they would in my Mtn. West home town. The fact that I perceive the West Coast, esp. the Pacific NW, to be ahead of the curve culturally, and not just in terms of race, in no way downplays the efforts of those who have made it so. It just means that I’d rather raise racially complex kids here than in Mississippi or Montana.