Kurghan, a time-traveling Scythian blacksmith with a jewellery business in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood, notices that his son Altai is losing the culture of his people. Kughan longs for nothing less than to feel the wind in his hair again and to ride his horse on a leopard hunt. He wants the same for his son. But should he force the way of the warrior on Altai? Or should Altai forge his own path?
My urban fantasy story “The Goddess in Him” is now available to read on NewMyths.com. I like this story because it’s about the immigrant experience. I was inspired to write it while teaching English to recent immigrants and refugees in the Plateau. But “Goddess” is about immigration across a time scale: how would immigrants from the B.C. era integrate into contemporary society? I believe that if you raised a Roman child in today’s society, she would be dancing on Tik-Tok soon enough. The past, if made accessible to us, simply becomes another country.
It’s also true that we project many of today’s values onto the past. It’s a stereotype that men in previous societies were somehow stronger, more rugged, violent, survivalist–in short, more manly than they are today. It may have been more common that people worked with their hands in the past, but this fantasy of manhood is more of a projection of our own society’s patriarchal values onto the past, a false nostalgia for something that never existed. Often, cultures in the historical past were surprisingly open to trans and gender non-conforming people, or men wearing clothes that today would be considered “effeminate.”
In some ways, Kurghan represents the man’s man Conan the Barbarian stereotype. But I also try to subvert assumptions about historical gender roles in this story. So hopefully, you find “Goddess” thought-provoking as well as laugh-out-loud funny. In a way, it’s a classic “fish-out-of-water” story, like Son of Zorn or George of the Jungle.
I would love to hear your comments on this story. I’ve accomplished a major goal of mine here: to write an urban fantasy story set in my home city of Montreal. Ever since reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Charles de Lint’s Newford series, and seeing Claude Lalumière’s Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic at a book festival, I was seized by the idea of bringing the fantastic to Montreal. Now I’ve done it for the first time ever. I hope it’s the first in a series of Montreal-inspired fantastic stories.
In her latest poetry collection, Salt Bride (Inanna Publications, 2019), Ilona Martonfi reinvents herself by creating a narrative out of her past–one in which she has had to reinvent herself many times, as a child refugee, mother, battered wife, activist, and, finally, as a poet. Hers is a refugee’s experience down to the very form and content of her lines; the search for place and home inspires her poetry, sometimes in unexpected ways. In the furtive fragments of her free verse lines, one detects a longing for impressions to stick, for a sentence to settle. But Martonfi’s voice is productively restless. Danger forces the refugee on the road, but she can still appreciate the beauty in a field of flowers.
In addition to her own, personal past, Martonfi tells the histories of other people. Her opening poem describes the environmental devastation around Shinkolobwe, an abandoned Congolese village where the uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was mined. An “official nonplace” (1), Shinkolobwe is a home that has been erased. Nagaski, in her second poem, “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” is another example. With haiku-like economy, she speaks from the voice of victim of the atomic bomb blast: “the ocean still, low winds. / 11:02 a.m. August 9, 1945 / was the day I died” (3–5). Her understatement is not a shout out against injustice but a quiet witnessing of the victim’s experience.
In her witness poems, she uses her sparse, imagistic style to pay witness to the Chernobyl disaster, the Babi Yar massacre, the bombing of Budapest, and the Birkenau concentration camp, among other topics. She marks the time-and-place specificity of each trauma to memorialize it; the litany of place names and times of day develop their own poetic rhythm, their own stark, metronymic effect. But she never forgets the beauty of the natural landscape, which seems at times to encode the idea of home, especially in places where all sense of home has been destroyed and remembering it has become more important than ever.
For example, “Srebrenica” tells the story of a man’s brother, a victim of the Bosnian genocide. It is told from survivor’s first-person viewpoint:
hands bound behind his back.
My brother is here
summer of 1995
in a mass grave in Bosnia
fourteen years old
Avdija buried without his head
of the mountain.
In this description of a grave, a home for the dead, her staccato imagery has the spontaneous clarity of Japanese poetry. The natural world is never far from Martonfi’s awareness; the beauty that lies by the wayside of trauma recalls the value of the lives lost.
Eventually, Martonfi turns to her own past to write about her family’s experience as Hungarian refugees during and after the Second World War. In poems like “Easter Sunday,” she reconstructs her earliest childhood memories. Representing herself as a “pigtailed Magyar refugee girl” (22), she tempers a sense of her innocence and naivety with her adult awareness of the secrets that her family never discussed at the time (personal interview). Fields of flowers and a new dress to wear are at the centre of this ten-year-old child’s world, until she discovers the “unfound” body of her mother (17), who has attempted suicide. “All the time I carry with me / the odour of spring / the odour of funeral,” the speaker states (5–6).
Smell is supposed to be the sense most strongly tied to memory; but what occasionally concretizes the past for Martonfi is sound. Lines of dialogue bring back the past with immediacy. Dialogue can draw up a specific childhood memory, or a memory of a fateful conversation, as in “The Vigil on Puget Sound,” a lament for her late brother. Other exclamations hit. In “White Lilacs,” she quotes her assertive reprimand against her abusive husband:
Lined with row houses
1215 rue Saint-André
tight knots of violence
Your four children. His fists.
“Shorty, I will divorce you!”
“I will divorce you,” you said.
Martonfi renders the violence in the relationship explicit. Her oral assertion of agency reaches out from the poem like it does from the past; her promise to divorce is her response to her husband’s fists.
In examining her own life, Martonfi writes about her own children and what it was like to live with a batterer husband. Though equating a poet with her speaker is usually problematic, Martonfi states that these poems reflect her experiences completely and that standing up against domestic violence is her life’s calling (personal interview). This said, her poetry has been a vehicle for the reinvention and re-fashioning of her identity. In the prose poem “Casa dei Zetti,” she furnishes a villa with a catalogue of domestic details, describing how it is “a house for art” (3), despite the presence of the violence that puts her “arms on the ceiling. Head on the wall” (15). Art is a way to recover from abuse and, in the end, to master one’s past. “Every day, I reconstructed myself,” she says (14), highlighting the importance of art for her recovery.
Martonfi’s poetry is especially sympathetic to the plight of children. In “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts,” she speaks of the “children / who will die once again” (22–23). The children who continue to suffer due to society’s inability to learn from the past serve as indictments of that society. In “Girl in Dubrulle Wood,” she speaks of a girl who was “snatched in a playground / in front of her mother” (16–17). In “Small River,” an Inuk woman recalls her grandparents’ traditional way of life, before she was taken to a Residential School–another form of kidnapping. “I was just four when taken,” her speaker says (19). “Small River,” like “The Fourth Panel,” is respectful of the other’s voice, reporting the facts of their trauma and letting the reader supply emotion.
Martonfi’s own childhood as a refugee, as recalled in her poems, parallels the experiences of these children. In fact, “Funeral Prayer for Alan Kurdî” can be read as one child refugee’s prayer to another: from Martonfi younger self to a boy who never made it to safety. Alan Kurdî is the Syrian refugee boy who drowned en route to the island of Kos in the Aegean Sea and whose photograph became one of the pietàs of the Syrian refugee crisis. As a former child refugee, Martonfi expresses her wish for Alan, and for all children displaced by conflict: “O little boy, Alan. / O God, give him a home” (15–17).
Given this powerful subject matter, which manages to be both personal and historical, one could risk overlooking Martonfi’s less eventful, more form-based poems. But to do so would mean to overlook her experiments, which inform the aesthetics of the rest of her collection. The well-crafted word-strokes of her ekphrastic Van Gogh poems express her verbal impressionism. In addition, her Cézanne poems, contained in “Les Lauves,” are a series of haiku which paint an impression of Cézanne’s art studio in Aix-en-Provence: “red-tile roof stone house / chasing the ghosts of artists / mistral in blue pines” (7–9). Additionally, “Sea Urchin” echoes this form in a series of oceanic haiku with mythological overtones, hinting at the mysterious depths that lie beneath the haiku itself: a concept that can be summarized in the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen.
In short, these poems reiterate the aesthetic that defines the rest of the collection. Fusing the personal with the historical, and impressionism with yūgen, Salt Bride offers the reader history with personal depths.
As a young child towards the end of the Second World War, Martonfi fled Hungary with her family as a war refugee. Though no one talked about such things at the time, she has since since learned that the town in Bavaria where she went to school was filled with Nazis from Czechoslovakia. Her family endured the siege of Budapest and many other dangerous experiences during this time.
In Salt Bride, she recounts these personal events as a poet. In her witness poems, she puts herself in the shoes of the hibakusha (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) and people displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well. She presents these and other subjects through her haunting, staccato-lined imagist verses, such as in this poem about victims of the atomic bombs:
“I played a piano in a wooden house
and then I saw my brother Akio digging me out carrying me outside on his back,
laying me down under a ginkgo tree
flies and maggots crawling on my body.
Like you, I forget.
We were children who will die once again.”
From “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts” in Salt Bride
“I don’t like to shout in my work,” says Martonfi. “I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes [a Holocaust memorial site]. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing.”
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.