The guest posts so far have talked about representation in SF/F from the perspective of people seeing themselves–or not seeing themselves–in fiction. But of course, there’s more to it. John Hartness talks about growing up “whitebread,” and how fiction helped him start to consider other perspectives, and to develop a greater degree of empathy.
There are parts of this essay that were difficult to read. There are parts that made me angry. But I also think back to my own childhood, growing up in a time and place where kids played “smear the queer” at recess (designating one random kid as “the queer,” with the rest of the kids trying to tackle him) or thought nothing of chants like, “Fight, fight! The n****r and the white!”
It was messed up. And it’s hard to look back and talk about. Which is why I appreciate John’s honesty, his willingness to look back at that ugliness, and to recognize how stories helped him to humanize those others and change his own behavior.
What in the world is a straight, white, American male from the Southeastern United States doing writing an essay about “the other?” That’s very similar to a question I asked at a convention a year or so ago when I found myself on a panel titled “Writing the Other.” I sat there in front of a roomful of writers and asked why the straight white guy who wrote books about straight white guys was talking about the Other.
I’m about as un-other as you can get in my part of the world. I was raised Presbyterian, by two parents who still lived together. I am white, straight, and I went to college. If you throw out the part about growing up poor, it was pretty much a Beaver Cleaver upbringing, complete with Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden novels. Even my reading material was whitebread!
Then I met Chris Claremont, and a little later, Mercedes Lackey. Not in person, but through their work. In 1986 Claremont was writing The Uncanny X-Men, and he, along with Louise and Walter Simonson, crafted the Mutant Massacre storyline, one of my favorite X-Men storylines to this day. It was a far-reaching crossover with massive character shifts that sent waves through the X-Universe that have been felt for the past 30 years. But that wasn’t the important part.
No, for me the important part was one five-panel scene in Uncanny X-Men #210, where Nightcrawler (the blue dude with the tail from the movies) is trapped in a warehouse by a mob that wants to beat him to death for being blue and scary-looking. Kitty Pryde, the young, pretty white girl X-Man, steps out of the shadows and calls the mob leader out on his BS while Colossus (in his non-metallic form) tries to reason with them. The dialogue in this scene opened my eyes to things I’d never considered.
Kitty: “Hey mister, who defines what’s human?”
Mob guy: “It’s obvious, girl. Just open your eyes.”
Kitty: “That simple, huh? Well, a whole chunk of my family was murdered in gas chambers because the Nazis said it was just as ‘obvious’ that Jews weren’t human. And not so long ago, in this country, people felt the same about blacks. Some still do. Is that right?!”
Almost thirty years later, that’s the part that stuck with me. Growing up in rural South Carolina in the 70s and 80s, the Holocaust was something you learned about in History class. There was never a personal connection, because there were no Jewish families in my town. But here was a character that I had been reading for several years, telling me that her family was killed just for being Jewish.
That connected. It connected because I had never paid attention to Kitty Pryde’s Jewish heritage. I assumed she was like me, because she looked like me (only female and pretty). Suddenly I had a realization that these people I read about in history books were real people, and I got that understanding from a fictional character. Dear Alanis – that’s ironic.
But Claremont wasn’t my only teacher, and I certainly had more to learn. Late in high school, I was more immersed in fantasy literature than I had ever been before, on account of having a girlfriend who read the same stuff I did, and having a job to buy my own books. I think it was that same girlfriend who handed me a copy of Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, and said “You have to read this.”
I trusted her taste. After all, I started going out with her because I saw her reading David Eddings’ Demon Lord of Karanda. So I read Magic’s Pawn, and I fell in love with Valdemar, a love affair that has lasted since that first day I sat down to read about Vanyel and Savil and poor doomed ‘Lendel.
Mercedes Lackey writes the doomed outsider teen as well as anyone I’ve ever read, and I was immediately wrapped up in the story of Vanyel. I was so wrapped up in the story that I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that he and Tylendel are both male, and in love. I cried like a baby at Tylendel’s death, and only later noticed that I had just wept for the death of an imaginary person that I would have likely made miserable had he ridden my school bus or been in my gym class.
Tylendel could have been anyone. He could have been the kid we called “fairy” on the bus and punched as he walked by, because he was slightly built and his voice hadn’t changed yet. He could have been Wayne, the pudgy kid down the road that we picked on for being a “band fag.” He could have been any number of real people in my life, and they could have been him. And what I said to them was just as cutting and hurtful as the words in those books. Those books didn’t transform me overnight, but they gradually opened my eyes to the consequences of my behavior, to the power words have. I started, ever so slowly, to change.
I couldn’t call someone “faggot” in the lunchroom anymore without thinking of how hurt Vanyel was by his father’s disapproval, and what kind of pain that kid might be going through at home. I couldn’t make cheap Jew jokes without thinking about how that casual cruelty and dehumanization led to things like the Holocaust and lynchings in my own county. Lackey and Claremont taught me that no matter how different I am from someone, there is a common thread, a connection to be made, if I’m brave enough to let it.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t turn from a bully into a saint; it was more like turning from a nerd into a slightly more understanding nerd. But I’d like to think that my friends who live somewhere else on the rainbow know that I’ve got their back. And I have a gay wizard and a Jewish mutant to thank for it. As always, I thank Chris Claremont and Mercedes Lackey for their characters that changed my life.
John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.
In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his ridiculous podcast Literate Liquors, where he pairs book reviews and alcoholic drinks in new and ludicrous ways. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.