Discovering the Other – John G. Hartness
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.
John G. Hartness
February 26, 2015 @ 8:25 am
Thanks, Jim, for posting this and giving voice to so many people who don’t have a platform of their own. I’ll pop in throughout the day to answer questions if anybody has them, and folks can reach me on Facebook, too.
February 26, 2015 @ 8:36 am
Thanks for writing this. Vanyel and Valdemar helped me survive high school when I was routinely ostracized and convinced I didn’t fit anywhere and had people trying to cram me into a mold of what a “normal” girl should be. I was shy, geeky, too bright, too awkward, uninterested in small talk and popularity. For the other adults and kids around me kept trying to “fix” me or reject me completely. The Herald Mage Series first gave me Vanyel with his ice dreams–and I GOT those on a huge level. Then I discovered Talia–and Talia was just the girl I could identify with. I owe Mercedes Lackey a great deal.
February 26, 2015 @ 8:49 am
Mercedes Lackey did the same for me, with the exact same trilogy. For me, it was specifically the scene after ‘Lendel dies, when Vanyel’s gifts have just been awakened, and he unknowingly assaults everyone around him with his overpowering grief. One of the other characters has the realization in that moment that Vanyel truly loved Tylendel, that he couldn’t possibly grieve that deeply and intensely if he hadn’t… and that love that strong can’t possibly be wrong. That character had, under the surface, been nurturing a prejudice that two people of the same sex couldn’t possibly love each other as truly and deeply as two people of the opposite sex.
And I realized… so had I.
Realizing that first thing about myself, lead me to be able to eventually be open to exploring other things about myself, and also to being capable of having friendship with a wide variety of people.
Fiction really can change hearts and minds. Fiction is important.
February 26, 2015 @ 10:45 am
I appreciate you sharing your story. Although I haven’t read either of those particular stories, it reminded me that writing characters in such a way that things about them that could easily be waved around like a flag to say, “Look how progressive I am! Look at my X character,” are normalized while not being ignored can be a powerful way to communicate what acceptance can look like. By showing it, perhaps more people can slowly come to embody it. Including those characters and treating them as normal while still dealing with the struggles they would have because of identity is important because, as has been the theme in these posts, representation matters.
February 26, 2015 @ 11:25 am
John, thank you. I am white, female, raised middle-class–probably upper middle class, though it’s hard to gauge, because I wasn’t really aware of such things then. I was certainly raised to believe that all people were equal and worthy of respect, but I didn’t…have much of a chance to put that into practice, if you know what I mean. And my parents’ reaction when I briefly dated a black man in college gave me pause, and a reason to believe that perhaps that thing about everyone being equal wasn’t quite as absolute as I’d been led to believe–and not just among people who were ignorant and unenlightened, but for people I’d every reason to respect. It was one of many experiences, in college and after, that helped me see that there were entire worlds out there I wasn’t seeing, because I didn’t have to see them.
I try now to read as diversely as possible–not just fiction, but nonfiction, biography/memoir, blogs and websites–because I want to know those worlds, and the people who inhabit them.
I really do think it’s gotten better, at least in some areas. More perspectives are out there, especially if you can find where to go looking for them. But it’s still too easy to remain blithely ensconced in one’s own little world, not even knowing there are other perspectives out there to be had, or that they’re important.Important to those who lack representation, yes, but also to those who are well represented, and need to know that all the world is not made up of only them.
Thanks so much for the post, and for adding your perspective.
February 26, 2015 @ 11:37 am
i loved the stories of Mercedes Lackey and Andre Norton because they wrote of outsiders who were more than their detractors thought. Science Fantasy was the only place to find gay characters. Those ladies, and a few others, taught me that if you can’t find what you like to read, you should write it. There are people who want our stories.
February 26, 2015 @ 12:04 pm
“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.”
I don’t understand this. You describe yourself as having bullied other kids. So what do you mean here? I get it didn’t turn you into a saint overnight, but if what you mean is that you were never a bully, you are wrong.
I’m glad that reading helped you stop doing those things, and opened your mind. But so long as you write about yourself as “not a bully, just a nerd”, that’s ignoring the damage you did to the kids you called “faggot”, or punched as he walked by, or called “band fag”. Nerds can be bullies, too.
John G. Hartness
February 26, 2015 @ 12:14 pm
I don’t think I was a bully. I may have picked on some people that didn’t deserve it, and I’ve spent a long time working to balance those scales, but when we talk about bullying I feel like it’s something done with a lot more intent and focus than anything I ever did. I may be wrong. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect, and I’m still not. But I’ve done a lot work to try and heal more harm than I did, and I keep trying. That’s all I can do.
Jim C. Hines
February 26, 2015 @ 12:23 pm
I think I’d disagree with you on this one. Looking back at myself, I was generally on the receiving end of the bullying. But there were also times I was a complete asshole to certain people who had been designated as lower on the kids’ status ladder than I was. It was never done with intent to hurt; it was thoughtless, partly because “everyone else was doing it,” and partly because it probably made me feel less like the nerdy loser.
But regardless of intent, it was cruel, hurtful, and damaging. And yeah, it was bullying.
I don’t know your past, so I’m not going to try to label things for you one way or the other. But I know how much I really hate to think of myself as a bully…and I know that at times, I was.
John G. Hartness
February 26, 2015 @ 12:31 pm
You’re probably both right. I might not be quite ready to own that part of my past, but I don’t really doubt it. Like you said, it was done out of being young and stupid, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong, and it doesn’t make me regret the hurt I caused people any less. All I can do now is work to be better, and to work to make up for the hurt I caused people in the past.
February 26, 2015 @ 12:52 pm
Bullying is the action, not the intent. If you did the actions, you were a bully, regardless of your intent or awareness of the fact that it might have been damaging.
This is important. Your whole point is about “othering” people, and how books caused you to see the common humanity you shared with people not like you. But you don’t want to associate youraelf with the label “bully, so you are “othering” bullies in order to distance yourself from a label you don’t want to have to take on. But I suspect that the vast majority of bullying is done by kids who don’t really intend to harm other people, they are just being young and stupid.
“Picking on” people is just another way of saying “bullying other people”.
I am sorry if this interferes with your view of yourself as a basically good person. But the thing is, pretty much everyone sees ourselves as basically good people. Do you really think that there is a clear bright line between clueless people like you who “just picked on other kids” and some mythical bully who, I dunno, picks on kids out of a sense of mission to be a bully? Do you think that this distinction matters to the kids you taunted, punched, or mocked?
Becauase as one of those kids, I can tell you that whether the kids hitting me and mocking me were focused on being bullies or just clueless stupid kids didn’t actually matter a damn. It still hurt and it still did damage.
February 26, 2015 @ 1:17 pm
That you recognize it happened and own up to it is a big step–all of the kids who used to bully and ostracize me in school that I know now fall into two groups: those who have no clue they ever did anything to hurt me and make my school years hell, and those who are strangely still playing this silly little game and still acting like schoolyard bullies. But none of them have ever said anything like: You know, we were crummy to you back then, we’re sorry about it now. None.
February 26, 2015 @ 1:52 pm
This is what you and I have in common too. The two examples you used opened my eyes to an entire world that is filled with pain everyone causes everyone else.
As a WoC, I had only been focused primarily on the issues between Whites and Blacks and the pain my own people felt, but those two examples (and one Bruce Lee movie), gave me some very real perspective on the existence bigotry. That Black people aren’t the only people who have ever been oppressed and White people aren’t the only ones who’ve ever engaged in it.
Which means, of course, that at some point, I must have engaged in this behavior and as a cis-gender, able-bodied woman, there are many axis of oppression. That I have privileges and prejudices, too, and that it would do well for me to check and examine them..
February 26, 2015 @ 1:53 pm
Yep! First time the death of a fictional character ever made me cry.
February 26, 2015 @ 1:56 pm
This might be one of the major factors that made me want to lose myself in fictional worlds as a child. Because even when the story I was reading didn’t have dragons, it had perspectives and points of view of people who were worlds apart from me – literally as well as figuratively. And that, to me, was just as intriguing as reading about a world that had dragons in it. To this day, I get fascinated by little details I spot in a book, about a particular community or culture. Even if it’s just a minor festival they celebrate or a homemade delicacy they enjoy. Even if it’s just mentioned in a single sentence; I get so curious that I don’t calm down until I’ve Googled it properly. Because it is these tiny details that humanize those communities for me, that make me see these people as more than words on a page. And it’s always a pleasant reminder that there are people out there who are very different from me, but are, at the end of the day, people.
Thanks, John, for putting your honest thoughts out here. This aspect of representation – the other side – is also a crucial one, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate to it.
February 26, 2015 @ 2:20 pm
Love your post!
February 26, 2015 @ 3:14 pm
Surprisingly, the thing that got me into science fiction was Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with a comment that the Philipino hero didn’t aspire to be a pilot because only women were smart enough for that.
At nine, too big and too well-developed for third grade, I already “knew” girls didn’t do science, though I loved to read about it. I was raised whitebread, too, working class parents married to each other, went to church, watched John Wayne movies, very Southern red clay upbringing.
But it was a white male, sometimes called misogynist, writer who showed me that there was a world I belonged in, that did not take away from me because of my gender. I read a lot of boys’ books, as well as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, Treasuer Island, Alice in Wonderland, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I liked British mysteries for their alien landscape (England in the ’20s) as for the mystery, which was just the stage for the aliens–Poirot, Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc., to walk about on.
The fiction world was where I wanted to live, and pretty much still do.
Thanks for sharing, John.
February 26, 2015 @ 4:48 pm
This is a great article. While I came to reading Mercedes Lackey from her Vows and Honor books, I have never stopped reading her. As a sickly, poor, white, introvert girl growing up, the two women who held their future in their own hands was great. When I met Vanyel I was older and very ready to read that sweet romance between the two boys. I was saddened when Tylendel went mad and I, too, cried when he died.
Fantasy has been my go to genre since I first read Tolkien and discovering how Ms Lackey dealt with all various faces of people in her many worlds made me a long time fan. Her willingness to write characters of all religions and sexual preferences living together, if not always peacefully, showed us how it could be.
Thank you for your comments. You, like Ms Lackey, have taught us that we should not leap to conclusions before we come to know a person.
February 26, 2015 @ 11:36 pm
Thank you for posting this perspective on diversity. And for the whole series. Representation matters. Most people think of representation as mattering for the minority person who sees themself onscreen or in print, but it also matters for everyone else to see those characters. Representation builds understanding.
Not nearly as eloquent, but as the mother of privileged, middle class white sons, I tried to blog about just that a few months ago.
February 27, 2015 @ 3:41 am
Interesting revelations, thank you for offering them.
I remember one of the few non-white people at my elementary school, I thought of him as a friend, but I still kept snatching his glasses off his face, thinking it was amusing. Didn’t think of it as bullying until today.
The “um, lots of Holderkin wives have ‘special friends'”, and Karen and Ilsa, later whatshername, and of course Vanyel and Tylendel, and later Stephan, made me more accepting of others who were gay.
It’s only in the past couple of years that it occurred to me that if I’d learned that lesson 20 years earlier, I would probably have been gay instead of simply celibate.
Too late now.
Takes me back to a quote from roughly the turn into the 20th century; one of the leading actresses of the time was reputed to have said “I don’t care what people do, as long as they don’t do it in the streets and scare the horses.”
I don’t care what people do as long as they’re not texting about it on the streets causing traffic accidents.
February 27, 2015 @ 12:01 pm
My own “nerd into a slightly more understanding nerd” moment was down to Neil Gaiman. I was about 14 when I stumbled across a library copy of volume 5 of “Sandman”, the story called “A Game of You.” Our heroes, a small group of flatmates suddenly thrown into contact with uncanny stuff, included a lesbian couple and a transwoman. Seeing LGBT characters portrayed as ordinary, decent, brave, and even just as viewpoint characters was an eyeopener. When I compared Gaiman’s attitude in this book to the unrelenting background homophobia of my school, I knew damn well which I preferred.
February 27, 2015 @ 12:16 pm
For those who loved Vanyel, there’s a Mercedes Lackey re-read going on at http://www.tor.com. We’ve just started Magic’s Pawn.
News & Notes – 2/28/15 | The Bookwyrm's Hoard
February 28, 2015 @ 3:09 pm
[…] fiction and fantasy. I have found all the posts interesting and thought-provoking. Here are a few: Discovering the Other (John G. Hartness talks about developing empathy as a result of reading SF/F) and I’m Not […]