When is it best to remember? When is it best to forget?
Sit with this question.
Ask yourself what memories in your life are worth keeping. Some memories we treasure for sentimental reasons, while some were part of our education, part of what made us into who we are today. But some memories are better worth forgetting.
Some memories we just want to forget because we find them embarrassing. However, there are some memories that, more profoundly, hold us back from realizing our fullest potential as human beings.
It is possible to be enslaved to the past. That’s the insight Nietzsche arrives at in his essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.” Living historically can be life-giving and can lend us towards tremendous insight into our life and times. But living with too much awareness of how our actions have repercussions can paralyze us into inaction.
I recently wrote an essay on this topic entitled “The Virtue of Forgetting: On Memory and Oblivion.” In it, I discuss how presentations made at Concordia University’s 2019 Liberal Arts Spring Colloquium last February treated the topics of memory and forgetting. The presentations ranged from Roman history, the works of Anton Chekov, and African Diaspora art. I reinterpreted the presentations in light of Nietzsche’s article, which was assigned to the audience as a reading for the Thomas More Institute’s interactive panel discussion that closed the colloquium.
Writing the other is an inherently political act, especially when the dominant culture wants to turn the other into a “them.”
An “us” is a person of dignity with whom we can empathize and recognize as a human being. An “us” is someone we can relate to and sympathize with, the kind of character we storytellers aspire to write: a fully complex, independent, contradictory human being with flaws, positive traits, and childhood wounds.
When we see psychological realism in a character, we recognize that character as an “us.” An “us” can be a real person. An “us” is someone we aspire to be, someone we could call our friend.
A “them,” on the other hand, is the enemy. “They” live outside the community and do not share “our” values.
A “them” can be a stereotype, an assembly of negative traits that “we” impose on “them.” “They” can also be an outright villains, feared not because they are evil, but considered evil “because [they are] Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar” (Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 115).
When we encounter a villain in an action movie, western, or adventure story who seems to exist for no other reason than to make trouble, they’re a “them.” They may be mysterious or all too predictable. They can be a preternatural consciousness engaged in a massive global conspiracy, or a roving horde of bloodthirsty raiders.
Either way, “they” are faceless, undeserving of our sympathy or empathy.
Of course, in real life, “they” are a social construct. “They” does not designate evil but an out-group. However, when this group is not considered equal to other human beings, they can unjustly be seen as a sinister force.
Through storytelling, an “us” can be othered and become a “them,” a pariah blamed for society’s ills, an object, a potential target for retaliation and violence. This is the process of dehumanization that can lead to the committing of atrocities.
Media and the Other
What’s important for us storytellers to recognize is that media representation plays a huge part in this process of dehumanization, just as it also plays a role in the humanization of the other.
When a character who is brown or black, or who is a woman, appears as the hero in a popular film like Black Panther or Captain Marvel, they are being included as an “us.”
However, when when precarious economics strike, when nationalism rises to a fascist pitch and wars are declared, the community may blame an entire group for its communal ills. People may start using the pronoun “we” in nationalistic ways, promoting xenophobia and intolerance.
We’re living through that moment now. There are “we”s who are being transformed into “them”s in front of our eyes.
Under this climate, asylum seekers have become represented in the media as others, as criminals—as “them.” The same is happening to Muslims across North America, whether or not they are recent arrivals. Rather than treating them as fully integrated citizens, there is a xenophobic tendency in our culture to deny their right to exist within national borders. And this is as equally true in Canada as it is in the United States.
Even second and third generation immigrants are being asked to justify their existence. How long does a family have to live in a country until they are universally acknowledged to be a part of it?
Bill 21 and Xenophobia in Québec
This perception of immigrants’ separateness from society largely comes from the media and the stories we consume. For example, since Québec history is largely told from a French-Canadian perspective, the contributions of new arrivals in Québec are frequently minimized or excluded from nationalist narratives. This encourages a perception of Québec’s destiny as residing solely with the success of the French-Canadian “experiment” in North America and not with immigrants.
(Of course, the French-Canadians are immigrants as well; the only people who can claim not to be immigrants in North America are Indigenous Peoples).
During the hearings for Bill 21 on the wearing of religious symbols for civil servants in the public sphere, religious Quebecers, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, were not adequately consulted. One senses they were excluded because they do not represent le peuple, the French-Canadian “core” of society. Some but not all those affected were recently arrived immigrants, but all the same, the decision to exclude certain people from certain jobs in the province–to limit access to our society–had broad support.
This fact should awaken us to the true force xenophobia has in Québec and Canada. The very fact that it could be perceived as “natural” to pass this law in Québec is a sign of how much these ideas have power.
The voices of those most affected were not respected or adequately listened to; the victims the law is now affecting were treated as objects and with ignorance, as potentially sinister and radicalized “they”s who are not part of the Québécois “nous” (“us”).
Telling the Right Stories
Media depictions have real consequences. If Muslims were not depicted in media as preternatural, radicalized terrorists plotting against the West, such a restrictive law as Bill 21 would probably never have passed, since there would be no perception of a threat. Neither would Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As a group, Muslims have become lightning rods for society’s blame, not only in Québec, of course, but across North America.
The stories we tell can other people, transforming them, in the perception of society, into an evil, collective “them” that is somehow fundamentally different from “us.” However, at the same time, we storytellers have the agency to push back against xenophobic narratives by questioning what kinds of characters we cast in which roles and why.
Think about it. Governments reduce an “us” into a “them” when it wishes to justify a war, when it wishes to justify overriding internationally recognized human rights, when it wishes to use force against members of the human community. The war could be external or internal to the boundaries of the nation state. Either way, our representations can turn the individuals they may be targeting into a mass–or it can do the opposite and show them as who they really are: human beings.
The wrong story can transform people into objects that can be killed, stolen from, or detained. But the right stories can lead to empowerment.
The dehumanizing narratives are all too common. When refugees and immigrants are described by the media as an ungovernable horde, the public’s perception of their individuality and humanity is destroyed, opening the way for the toleration of xenophobic policies.
This has been case with the Syrian refugee crisis and the asylum seekers on the U.S. southern border. In keeping the media away from concentration camps where children are detained in squalid conditions, ICE encourages their perception by the media as a mass. They become objects to manage, instead of emotionally traumatized human beings.
As creatives, we contribute to mass culture with practically every word we publish. We have the ability to resist these processes of dehumanization—or to become complicit in them and thus with the crimes they make possible.
Beat the Drums of Peace
Who gets to be an “us” in the stories we tell? Who gets to be a “them”? These casting decisions are always more than a “creative choice.” In our day and age especially, choosing is a moral act.
In May 2019, Saladin Ahmed, an Arab-American comic book writer and fantasy novelist, posted the following Tweet:
fellow storytellers –remember that war never happens without us being asked to help beat the drums. that pressure’s going to increase soon. all of us need to think ahead about what we are going to do in the face of that…
His message, written in the spectre of a potential U.S. war with Iran, is an urgent call to action.
How we choose to depict Muslim characters in fiction carries consequences, as it does for every group that has ever been labelled “other.” In the stories you tell, are Muslims an “us” or a “them,” if they are even there at all? If you’re writing a story about immigrants or refugees, how do you show them integrating, or refusing to integrate, into their new society? Do you find yourself gravitating towards tropes of the immigrant-as-criminal?
As storytellers we must all reflect on how our depictions may feed into the current climate of xenophobia.
Why? Because dehumanization beats the drums of war. When the U.S. military instructed marines to think of North Vietnamese soldiers as “gooks,” the change in language brought a change in mentality. The marines no longer felt like they were shooting human beings; they were killing gooks, not Vietnamese soldiers.
When we tell stories that implicitly dehumanize groups of people, it’s as if we’re calling them gooks. It’s the act that precedes the pulling of a trigger. It enables that process, but it can also reverse it.
Too often, however, the genres I love—romance and adventure—dehumanize those who are other, portraying them as inherently evil because they are other. In particular, fantasy has a tendency to depict otherness as a sign of evil. As writers, we all have to do better, no matter our genre.
I’ll cover the reason for why adventure stories carry this baggage in part two of my reflection. Next week, I will explain how fantasy’s tendency to other goes all the way back to the moral binaries of the chanson de geste, a medieval literary genre that could be best described as the medieval equivalent of Frank Miller’s 300 meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail–the obscenely bloody Black Knight sketch in particular.
N.B.: As a white male author, I’ve been giving more thought to what characters I depict in fiction in order to confront the default. While I recognize I have an imperfect perspective on the other and am blind to many facts of systemic inequality, this article represents my thoughts on the importance of representing diversity in fiction. I feel it’s time I put in my two cents on this topic. In making reference to Fredric Jameson, this article builds off research conducted for my Master’s thesis. I would like to extend my thanks to Saladin Ahmed and Usman Malik for impetus and additional inspiration.
As you may have guessed, the title is “The Critical Irrealism of Borges’s Aleph.” You may already be familiar with Jorge Luis Borges’s famous short story, “The Aleph.” If you aren’t, do yourself a favour and read it: it’s a phantasmagorical vision told in sophisticated prose and you won’t be disappointed.
Back yet? Good. Now, you might be wondering what critical irrealism is. Fortunately, the answer is quite simple.
Critical irrealism is basically a stance a writer takes towards reality. Instead of assuming that literature can represent reality objectively, as all realist fiction does at least implicitly, the critical irrealist demonstrates the ways reality cannot be trusted. Often, critical irrealists do this through the devices of fantasy, gothic fiction, and surrealism.
I’m fascinated with Borges because he seems to encapsulate the concept of critical irrealism so well. In “The Aleph,” he describes a point in space in which all other points are visible simultaneously. This object, which he calls the Aleph, is a vision into the totality of the worlds in the universe. However, there’s a catch.
While it appears to present a perfect representation of the universe, Borges’s narrator comes to distrust it. He calls it a false Aleph, suggesting the way human beings sometimes deny what they know to be true. I explain the reason for this in my article, which you can read here. For now, suffice it to say that Borges throws doubt on the very ability of language to represent reality, let alone infinity.
The Aleph also reminded me of a similar artefact mentioned in Usman T. Malik’s award-winning novella “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn.” It’s an interesting coincidence, and probably more than a coincidence, because as it turns out, “The Aleph” and “Pauper Prince” are linked by a common legend.
The hero of Malik’s novella travels to Pakistan to unravel some mysteries that lie in his family’s history. On this quest, he comes across an ancient artefact that grants him knowledge of the whole universe, including the realm of the jinn. It is the Cup of Jamshid of Islamic legend, also known as the Cup of Kai Khosru.
It turns out that legends of this famous cup may have partly inspired Borges’s Aleph. In his story, Borges explicitly compares the Aleph to “the sevenfold goblet of Kai Khorsu,” one of the artifices described in a forgotten manuscript written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, the adventurer and translator of the One Thousand and One Nights. One might conclude that stories of this cup, a sort of Islamic Holy Grail, were percolating at the back of Borges’s highly intertextual mind.
However, whereas Borges must maintain a plausible denial of the fantastic, Malik does not fear dipping fully into fantasy. Indeed, Malik presents us with a real Aleph, similar to the one Borges describes: the seven-ringed Cup of Jamshed.
“At the Ford of Danamol a spur of the mountains runs right down to the river, making a low rampart of hills screening it from the north. The Khentor host was pausing to eat about two miles away from the Ford; Li’vanh and Mnorh had gone away from the rest about a mile, to the top of a low rise, to keep a watch. They were lying very flat in the short grass taking it in turns to keep an eye on the land before them. And it was during Mnorh’s watch, while Li’vanh was looking back towards their own camp, that the enemy first showed themselves” 146
“[Li’vanh] He sighed. It was not so easy to pray, alone–or at least he had never found it so. But all at once he felt that he dared not go unblessed–unarmed. What prayer could he make, to the God whom he had refused to forsake, yet could not truly remember?” 209
“So Ir’nanh brough me, didn’t he? he thought angrily. Well then, all I can say is that Ir’nanh had a ruddy nerve. But what right did Ir’nanh bring me? What affair was I of his?
And that was another thing. Magic he might possibly accept; he had no choice. But Ir’nanh was spoken of as a god. Of many things he was uncertain, but he was fiercely sure that Ir’nanh was no god of his, and he would not worship him” (34).
At a wine and cheese social last November, my professor, Dorothy Bray, who taught a class on the fantastic in medieval literature over the Fall, began to talk to me about how Guy Gavriel Kay had ‘stolen’ material from The Fionavar Tapestry from an earlier author.
I was mildly scandalized that Kay, who has achieved the Order of Canada, should have stolen details from an earlier author of epic fantasy, and was curious about who that author might have been. Perhaps he could be forgiven this unabashed theft if it came in his earlier Fionavar novels, when the younger Kay had yet to iron out his style and voice.
The premise behind the novels is that five students from the University of Toronto get summoned, by an undercover wizard, to the court of Ailill, the High King of Brennin. When the wardstones holding back the grim evil of Rokoth Maugrim the Unraveller break, the dark lord unleashes war upon the free peoples of Fionavar. Meanwhile each of the five students have their own private destinies to fulfill, one as a seer, one as a warrior of the plains, and so on. (You can read more about books one, two, and three of The Fionavar Tapestry here.)
In January Professor Bray offered me a well-preserved Ballantine Adult Fantasy novel, Red Moon and Black Mountain by the wonderfully-named Joy Chant. In The Fionavar Tapestry, one of the university students, Dave Martyniuk, is separated from the other during the crossing from this world into Fionavar. Prof. Bray informed me that basically the same thing happens in Red Moon, Black Mountain, and offered it to me to read.
I read through Chant’s novel chapter by chapter while working on my Master’s thesis. I emerged pleasantly surprised. My experience was of a nostalgic tour through the classic tradition of fantasy. Chant really focused on the psychology of the child protagonists, and did so realistically, while presenting an honest narrative about the experience of growing up and losing innocence in a war against great evil, a war where victory is never assured and even triumph buys only momentary reprieve.
I recall Kay telling the press (I forget the particular essay or interview) that the reason he emphasizes the cost of his characters’ choices is because he read too much epic fantasy where dire choices held no grave consequences. This perspective seems to me now to have a lot to do with the worldview projected in Red Moon and Black Mountain, where a fairy tale happy ending never happens without catastrophe.
All this was very suggestive to me. So I read the novel and compiled a list of similarities between Kay’s trilogy and Chant’s epic fantasy novel. Most points are superficial, no more than the usual kind of borrowing authors do. But the last example is a direct lifting from Chant–or as I prefer to think of it, a scene that was stolen productively.
The list follows:
1. A red moon and a black mountain.
Chant’s villain, the sorcerer Fendarl, has been bound by magic within Black Mountain, close to where Penelope and Nick find themselves after crossing over into the land of Kendrinh, the Starlit Land. Kay also has Rakoth Maugrim locked up in a dark mountain–a volcano in fact. As for the red moon, for Chant, its redness signifies the growing power of evil, while the moon’s waxing represents the power of good. Kay riffs off the same idea when the red War Moon of the Goddess appears in The Summer Tree.
2. Massive black birds
When Paul hangs on the Summer Tree in The Fionavar Tapestry, he witnesses a white and a black wolf fight, representing the war between good and evil. In Red Moon and Black Mountain, there is an epic battle between white and black eagles near Black Mountain–the white eagles win, but at terrible cost. Kay also has giant black birds in his fantasy: the black swans, who are servants of Rakoth.
3. Portal Quest Fantasy
Just likeThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Red Moon and Black Mountain is about children who tumble through a portal into a magical world. In The Summer Tree, they are adults, and commit more or less willingly to travel to Fionavar, following the advice of Loren Silvercloak, a wizard. Both novels also have one character separate from the main group in the crossing: Oliver in Chant and Dave Martyniuk in Kay. Another interesting variation on the portal quest fantasy is how Chant depicts the rapid acculturation of the children to their new, medieval world. They even start to forget their own birth names, adopting the ones locals give to them. In Kay, the Torontonians gain alternative names too and adopt to their medieval setting so rapidly that I frankly deem it one of the faults of this early novel that it did not take more time to show their transition.
Dave and Oliver both wind up among horse-riding nomads. In Fionavar, Dave finds himself among the Dalrei, which share similarities to Plains Indian culture. In Chant’s novel, Oliver finds himself learning the ways of the Hurnei, another nomadic tribe that punishes the unnecessary hunting of animals with banishment. Furthermore–and this demonstrates more than passing coincidence–Dave’s Dalrei friend is named Levon, an echo of Oliver’s name among the Khentor: Li’vanh.
5. Mythic horses
Horses are a staple of many fantasies. But magical horses are nonetheless included in both Kay and Chant: Dur’chai is Oliver’s sublime steed, while Tabor, a Dalrei, rides on the red unicorn, which is a horse with wings.
6. Magic forest
The magic forest is yet another staple of fantasy. Nonetheless, I note it here: Kay’s perilous wood is Pendaran Wood, a place of deadly magic where the trees themselves conspire against unworthy trespassers, while Nelimhon is Chant’s wood of eternal spring, which is dangerous for its seductive faery-like beauty.
7. Sense of sacrifice
The general sense of necessary sacrifice in Kay and Chant reveals a similar moral tone in both their novels, whether it is Paul willingly sacrificing himself on the Summer Tree in The Fionavar Tapestry, or the Hurnei’s grievous wartime losses in the desperate war against the forces of the dark lord Fendarl in Red Moon and Black Mountain.
6. Wild magic that must be bound
In Red Moon and Black Mountain, the evil magic of Fendarl looses the wild magic of Vir’Vachal, an amoral earth goddess who cares only for the land itself and growing things, to the exclusion of human beings. In The Fionavar Tapestry, a magic horn summons the Wild Hunt, which descends on the battlefield where the Dalrei are fighting Rakoth Maugrim’s forces. The Wild Hunt slaughters amorally on either side and is only bound with the intervention of the hunter goddess Ceinwein, who cannot be counted on to intercede twice. Vir’Vachal, on the other hand, is bound back to the earth with Oliver’s sacrifice towards the end of the novel. Which brings us to Kay’s direct borrowing from Chant.
9. Adonis myth
There is a nearly beat-by-beat borrowing from Red Moon and Black Mountain in The Wandering Fire in how Kay depicts Kevin Lane’s sacrifice to the earth goddess. The passage in Chant that Kay borrows from happens when the Hurnei realize that a vast human sacrifice is necessary in order to bind Vir’Vachal and prevent a wider human catastrophe. Oliver realizes that if he volunteers himself as a sacrifice, no more Hurnei will have to die. He presents himself into the cave of the priestesses and participates in a ritual that involves stepping over a cliff to plummet into a (nearly) bottomless pit:
“A clear path lay before him, ending on a slab at the brink of the abyss. With fear and will both drowned in the pounding heartbeat, he walked slowly forward. She [The High Priestess] watched him come, and he looked at her, and was not afraid. With the gulf at his feet he stopped, and hot air rising from the deeps smote on his face. Less than twice his height parted from Vir’Vachal; yet this time she did not rob him of his strength. He was strong, strong as she herself, and he would bind her. Gazing back at her he stepped up on to the slab. The dark depths at his feet called to him, the eyes of Vir’Vachal drew him. He drew a deep breath and raised his arms. Then savouring the sweet terror of doing just what he desired, he laughed and sprang over the edge.
For an instant he seemed to hover above the gulf, then he plunged into darkness. Fast and faster he fell, while the air roared in his ears and light burst behind his eyelids. The heat smothered him,his blood thundered, and the darkness closed above him, filled him, enveloped and overpowered him, devoured him and destroyed him, and Li’vanh Tuvoi was no more. Vir’Vachal flung up her head and sank from the sight of mortals for ever; and in the cave the women beat their breasts and cried Rahai! Rahai!” (264)
Oliver’s laughter emerges like an ecstatic joy chant. If he were not a child, his reaction could be called a moment of nearly sexual pleasure: the symbolism of this scene is allegorical for a sexual awakening. The cave is a sign of the female anatomy, and Freud interpreted dreams of falling as being sexual in nature. By performing this sacrifice, Oliver has become an adult, at least symbolically: fully mature and introduced to womanhood. It is a sacrifice much like Kevin’s sacrifice in The Wandering Fire:
“Wordlessly, he turned, remembering the way, and crossing the wide chamber, bearing his blood in a stone bowl, he came to its farthest point. To the very brink of the chasm.
“Naked as he had been in the womb, he stood over it. […] and he poured out the brimming cup of his blood into the dark chasm, to summon Dana from the earth on Midsummer’s Eve. […]
“She was there and her arms were around him in the dark as she claimed him for her own. It seemed to him as if they floated for a moment, and then the long falling began. Her legs twined about his, he reached and found her breasts. He caressed her hips, her thighs, felt her open like a flower to his touch, felt himself wild, rampant, entered her. They fell. […] End of longing, with the ground rushing now to meet, the walls streaming by; no regret, much love, power, a certain hope, spent desire, and only the one sorrow for which to grieve in the last half second, as the final earth came up to meet him.
“Abba, he thought, incongruously. And met.” (398-9)
Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells of how Adonis was the lover of Venus. He was gored by a boar in the groin and died from his wounds, but from his blood, a new flower grew as a memorial: the anemone, noted for its red petals. In The Wandering Fire, Kevin was marked for his destiny likewise by a boar that tusked him in the groin. His sacrifice mirrors the death of Adonis and is in keeping with the mythologies of fertility and sacrifice surrounding the archetype of the Dying God that Sir James Frazer describes in The Golden Bough. The Dying God, like the Dying King, perishes for the sake of the land, and so, replenishes it and saves its people, much as Jesus Christ died for the redemption of sins.
Kay’s treatment of Kevin’s sacrifice does more than echo Chant’s depiction of Oliver’s sacrifice–it offers a gloss on the episode. The sexual symbolism not yet explicit in Chant finds explicitness in Kay, revealing how Kay’s later work holds conversation with the classic fantasy tradition.
Chant, Joy. Red Moon and Black Mountain. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970. Print.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Fionavar Tapestry. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1995. Print.
Today I will be presenting on urban fantasy and how it relates to the conditions of combined and uneven development.
Modern fantasy as a literary form has diversified since The Lord of the Rings (1954) and its subsequent paperback imitators. Stereotypically set in medieval or pseudomedieval kingdoms with dragons, elves, and faeries, these paperbacks were rarely set in cities, but usually in the countryside or in a sublime, pre-Raphaelite wilderness. As a form, what provided the historical impetus to the rise of modern fantasy, as early as the late nineteenth century, was the rise of literary realism and the modern novel, the techniques of which authors began to apply to older, or residual forms, such as chivalric romance and epic. Fantasy is therefore a quintessentially modern form even though its settings might be throwbacks to medieval forms. With urban fantasy, a subgenre that originated in the 1980s, fantasy continues to employ residual literary forms such as fairy tale, folktale, romance, and epic, but places the fantastic content within a modern milieu—the contemporary, usually North American, city.
Charles de Lint, a Canadian author resident in Ottawa, has been called the Father of Urban Fantasy. Fantasy novels set in the modern world have older antecedents, such as the supernatural detective stories of Charles Williams, but ‘urban fantasy’ per se, as a market category, emerged during the 1980s, when de Lint wrote many of his classic works, including Moonheart (1984). De Lint’s fiction sets fairy tales, myths, and folktales derived from Celtic, Romany, and Native American traditions—as well as urban legends—within urban space, with novelistic, modern protagonists who interact with mythical, otherworldly figures. Instead of imposing the plot of a conventional fantasy novel onto urban space, de Lint is interested in how ordinary people interact with the fantastic and the numinous on their own terms, and he does so with a social conscience.
Urban fantasy lends itself to an analysis framed by the concept of combined and uneven development because it can claim to represent an uneven modernity in its content as well as its form. But first we must ask, “What is combined and uneven development?” The Warwick Research Collective, referring to Leon Trotsky’s History of the RussianRevolution, describes combined and uneven development as “a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside ‘archaic forms of economic life’ and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). Uneven development rears its head whenever you see a high-rise financial district skyline within close proximity to seemingly ‘backwards’ and impoverished slums, or when agrarian farmers are wrenched from the cotton fields they have tilled for generations right into the disorienting presence of advanced industrial machinery. Capitalism must be understood as a world system that encompasses the whole globe under a single, though uneven, modernity—not just as a European development that has spread outward across the globe, bringing modernity with it. This understanding refutes the idea that some societies, especially former colonies, are somehow ‘backwards,’ or behind modernity. Although societies across the globe experience the modern age differently, they are all irreducibly modern, part of one combined system. Neocolonialism may establish hierarchies between one singular modernity and another, but this simply makes it an uneven, combined system, rather than two distinct systems.
How does all this tie in to urban fantasy? Just like the world-system, the form of all modern fantasy is itself combined and uneven, since it joins residual forms that originated in pre-modern periods with the modern novel. In a sense, this is true of all novels, even in realism, where displaced romance forms the novel’s deep structure. But modern fantasy differs from realism because it displays this structure upfront, often as a self-conscious imitation of pre-modern forms, the magical content of which, however, it retains. These disjunctures deepen in urban fantasy, which blends the pre-modern and the modern on the level of content as well as form. The disjuncture between elves, mermaids, fairies, spirits, and goblins coexisting with a modern, urban setting becomes explicitly represented and narrativized in urban fantasy. We can read this disjuncture as an allegory of the combined and uneven system.
This system also describes the dynamic in the hierarchy between the city and the country that urban fantasy mediates. The city dominates the countryside but this relationship nonetheless joins the two spaces. In a similar way, urban fantasy appropriates the pastoralist content of fairy tales and folktales, joining residual, rural culture with the dominant urban culture. This combination of disjunctive content allegorizes the hierarchical relationship of the city over the country. However, urban fantasy does not simply reflect urban dominance as much as it appropriates the natural and the rural to awaken a utopian desire for a less alienated existence within the urban.
Western culture, as Cat Asthon describes in her essay on de Lint in The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, traditionally treats the idea of nature and wilderness as a cure for alienated modernity. However, de Lint’s fiction recognizes the truth that an escape to pure nature is an escape from history and responsibility. Nature is, after all, a cultural construct produced by humans, an aspect of modernity even though it describes a non-human world. Instead, de Lint adopts an urban environmentalism in which his fiction seeks what spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre would call a “renewed right to urban life” (“Right to the City”).
Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, which counters urban alienation, finds common cause with the politics of de Lint’s urban fantasy. “The right to the city is like a cry and demand,” Lefebvre writes, a revolution of space that places “appropriation over domination, demand over command, and use over exchange” (“Space as a Social Social Product”). Since the city dominates space and nature by transforming it into exchange value—for example, by exploiting natural resources for export and by constructing vast condo projects—Lefebvre calls for the production of socialist space, in which the working classes will use, or appropriate, space for themselves. Nature is the source of all use value, and asks for nothing in return. The city will become a healthier environment if people can use it, rather than it using them.
In the remainder of my presentation, I will demonstrate how two of de Lint’s books—the novel Mulengro (1985) and the short story collection Dreams Underfoot (1993)—respond to the call for the right to the city while also representing the conditions of combined and uneven development in North American cities, specifically Ottawa and de Lint’s fictional city of Newford.
Mulengro is a ghost story about the community of Rom living in Ottawa, mixed with a police procedural subplot. A series of gruesome “Gypsy” murders around Ottawa has the cops lost for any plausible explanation. Janfri, a Romani fiddler, watches his home burn down with the Rom symbol for marhime, meaning unclean, painted on his house. Since the Romani are nomad, owning a home is a sign of defilement, an unacceptable adoption of Gaje, or non-Rom, ways—or at least this is what the arsonist’s gesture implies. As the criminal murders more Rom, the elders decide to flee the Ottawa. They know the culprit to be a ghost named Mulengro, a survivor of the Nazi persecutions who has come back to cleanse the Rom from their Gaje ways. Ola, a Rom who practices draba, or magic, flees her house after being attacked by local ruffians, and Mulengro targets her. She hides out with Zach, a hippy living off the land in cabin country. Eventually Janfri makes a final stand with her and the police against Mulengro and his feral wolf minions.
Mulengro denies the Rom the right to the city. His reasoning for committing the murders is that he sees the Rom’s impoverishment as a result of their being marhime, owing to their adoption of Gaje ways—in a word, because of their modernizing. However, the novel’s resolution makes clear that cultural identities are not so clear-cut, that it is possible and even favourable to partake of modernity and retain connection to traditional ways of life, including magic. The Rom are a non-modern culture living a quintessentially modern life. Furthermore they are subjected, like the native peoples of North America, to a settler culture that seeks to manage and even criminalize difference.
What are we to make of the role Mulengro himself plays, a revenant who consumes the souls of doomed Rom? The imagery of consumption calls upon vampire lore—and the Gothic vocabulary in Marx that references vampiric capitalists who extract surplus value from the working class. Mulengro harasses those Rom who own real estate and thus live between the worlds of capitalism and the Rom pre-capitalist, handicrafts mode of production. In other words, he consumes the souls of those most aware of the unevenness of modernity. As the Rom become incorporated into the capitalist economy, most importantly through the real estate market, they experience sudden change. The replacement of use value with exchange value in their increasingly commodity-filled lives leads the Rom to feel cognitive dissonance between the capitalist system they inhabit and their traditions, where a belief in ghosts and the law of marhime still holds sway. Mulengro’s horror represents a structure of feeling among the Rom, a social formation in the process of developing. The ghost is an allegorization of how their society experiences the turmoil of poverty while living on the margins of modernity.
I now turn to Dreams Underfoot, which is more centrally focused on urban experience. Here the urban underworld becomes a faerie Otherworld unnoticed by most denizens of Newford, although occasionally glimpsed by the bohemian artists, street kids, and homeless men that distinguish de Lint’s fiction. The Tombs, for instance, used to be a developer’s dream for a sprawling yuppie paradise, but when this late capitalist urban planning venture failed, the ruins of the city blocks that were demolished remained behind—now a refuge for winos, bag ladies, and the homeless. The Tombs, abandoned by the city government after the attempt to produce exchange value from its space, has now fallen into a state of nature or wilderness and become appropriated by the underclass. Although it is a dangerous area of the city, the Tombs is where the underprivileged can tactically appropriate their right to urban space.
A space they share with colourful characters derived from fairy tales and urban myths. In one short story, “That Explains Poland,” a young photographer finds Bigfoot in the Tombs, which is not so unusual a discovery, because of the various disenfranchised people who live in this wilderness-like area. In another story, “Winter was Hard,” the presence of certain genii loci, or spirits of a place, in the Tombs contributes to making the city a tolerable place to live, while their departure signals the moment the city takes on a more haunted, less homelike character. The right to the city is thus tied directly to the presence of these pre-modern fairy-like creatures. They are pieces of agrarian European folklore transplanted to a North American city and they directly oppose alienation. If we believe in them hard enough, they might come back and restore the city.
The story that concludes Dreams Underfoot strongly suggests that de Lint sees his own fiction as a way to counter urban alienation and foster a sense of community. The fictional urban fantasy writer Christy Riddell, a stand-in for de Lint, finds his muse in Tallullah, the spirit of Newford itself. But Tallullah must leave Christy because of the rise of urban crime and a loss of connectivity among people, which drives her away. In the end, Christy holds the hope that his story collections might restore a sense of community to city dwellers and bring her back.
Dreams Underfoot and Mulengro both use fantasy to question the Enlightenment epistemology and to assert that if this epistemology does not extend to everyone, everywhere, equally—if, for example, it is still possible for people to believe in ghosts and fairies—then modernity itself cannot be evenly developed. While a text asking you to believe in fairies and spirits might seem flaky, seeing as this gives us no solid program to reclaim the city, such faith does awaken the desire to see the postmodern, uneven city restored from its ruins. It implies that there is more to modernity, and that the residual survives and coexists with the modern. De Lint’s fiction arouses our desire to become instruments of social progress. This is the utopian imagination and the power of fantasy.
This concludes my presentation, which could not have been possible without the financial assistance of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank them, and I thank you for listening.
The following has been a transcript of a talk given at the English Department of McGill University’s MA colloquium on 10 March 2016 in Montreal.