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 hibukusha (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.
David Demchuk, who attended Montreal’s Blue Metropolis festival earlier this year, is the author of a Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated collection of horror short stories, The Bone Mother. This was quite an accomplishment for a horror writer, especially since writers of horror fiction are so often excluded from the literary mainstream. The Bone Mother, set in the interwar period in Eastern Europe, is inspired by Slavic folklore and the stunning and slightly disquieting photographic archive of Romanian photographer Costică Ascinte.
I won’t say much else about it here except that the book itself seemed to dovetail nicely with my Master’s thesis, which investigated, in part, what the difference between magic realism and fantasy set in the primary world is, if there exists a difference at all. Demchuk’s novel does serve to blur the lines, but at the Blue Metropolis, he was adamant in insisting The Bone Mother is not magic realism but straight-up horror.
He spoke in a small presentation room called Broadway I in the Saratoga Hilton at Saratoga Springs, NY, introducing for the first time the central concept behind his new novel. It was Guy Gavriel Kay giving the origin story behind Children of the Earth and Sky, due for release this Spring, and I was among the privileged few to hear him read from his new novel–the most anyone has ever learned about his latest historical fantasy.
This was only one of the many highlights over the weekend, but it was the highlight to which I had most been looking forward. I may not own Guy Kay’s complete works, but I have read them all and that includes not just Fionavar Tapestry and all of his historical fantasies, but his poetry volume Beyond this Dark House as well.
Before going into the details of his new novel that were revealed during his reading, let me at first attempt to describe my experience of what went down during the first few days (Thursday and Friday) of the World Fantasy Convention. There were many panels and big-name, even venerable, authors of both fantasy and science fiction–as well as authors of horror and weird tales, and their editors, publishers, and even some literary agents.
I arrived late Thursday evening, but I was on time to attend three plays by Lord Dunsany. The tone of the these plays was British-mannered and satirical and included play where a thief gone to heaven strives to break the lock of the pearly gates–but finds only the stars of the firmament on the other side.
I was rooming at the convention with a celebrity, as I discovered, although to me he was just a normal guy I was able to connect with in order to share a room: Usman T. Malik is an author of weird fiction and very popular in Pakistan, the first from his country to win a Bram Stoker Award. His story “Resurrection Points” was published in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. II, which was one of the many books I bought at the convention.
Upon first entering the convention, we were handed canvas bags loaded with 4-5 free books. Already this was more books than I had anticipated bringing home, but then again, I had yet to learn the ways of World Fantasy. These books included an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of soon-to-be-released novel The Alchemist’s Council by Cynthia Masson, which I will strive to write a review for before its release date.
The funky thing about this book is that it was published by ECW Publications, to which I have a connection. Robert Lecker, who was my professor throughout several classes on Canadian literature at McGill and for whom I am now employed as a research assistant, was an ex-editor at ECW when it was a magazine called Essays in Canadian Writing. Nowadays, although they kept the copyrighted acronym, the publishers changed the meaning of ECW to Entertainment Culture Writing and are now publishing fantasy and science fiction, among other genres including non-fiction and literary fiction. While I knew Lecker had been with ECW, I was not aware they were publishing in my genre and I was quite surprised to see them at Saratoga!
Thursday night I chilled at the Canadian SF party, listening to David Hartwell, editor of Tor’s Years Best anthologies, talk informally about how a lot of authors nowadays are being taught how to write publishable material, but rare is the writer who can write with voice and rise to greatness. Guy Kay was circulating about the room as I listened, but I missed my chance to speak with him right then. The next day, Friday, I had a better opportunity to do this.
Friday, I attended two panels before walking into Guy Kay’s reading and learning the long-kept secret of the subject of his latest novel.
One of these panels was “Ur-Fantasies: It all Started With…” and it was composed of Tod McCoy, a Seattle-area small press publisher, Roderick Killheffer, a reviewer and publisher for 25 years, Michael Dirda, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books and who was a medievalist in grad school, Rosemary Claire Smith, who was written for Analog using her experience as an archaeologist, and Barbara Chepaitis, a novelist and the panel’s moderator. What were the first, original fantasy texts? Do they stretch back to The Epic of Gilgamesh or even earlier? Michael Dirda talked about his discovery of the Icelandic sagas as a sort of Ur-fantasy; he called them and I paraphrase, “spaghetti westerns on ice.” Barbara Chepaitis called Scheherazade’s storytelling in The Arabian Nights “the first civil disobedience” since Scheherazade’s tales, designed to always end on a hook, keep interesting the king, thus delaying his plan to execute her in order to ensure her marital fidelity. Telling stories, she saves the kingdom from the murderous rampage of the king, who has already killed hundreds of previous wives. Chepaitis also provocatively mentioned the Iroquois Peacemaker’s Epic, which recounts the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy by chief Hiawatha, as a counterpoint to fantasy epics that tend to constantly revolve around warfare.
“Scale in Epic Fantasy–Tensions between the Epic and the Intimate” involved Chris Gerwel, Ilana C. Meyer, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Glen Cook, with Joshua Palmatier as moderator. How can one write an epic fantasy that also treats intimate moments of human relationships? How do you balance character interaction with the wider lens of a Risk board of military conquests? The market expectation, Palmatier opened, is for vast, sprawling epics. But readers relate to more intimate moments. Striking this balance, I must note, is something Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent in doing.
A good example of pace and scale failing was the example of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films, the panel proposed: Tolkien’s story is intensely focused on Bilbo’s psychology and relationship with the dwarves, while Jackson erred in making the 3-part film too epic in scope. Glen Cook told us that he knows pace more intuitively and that it is his habit to write his entire novel by hand, then type it on a computer and go through 2-3 drafts in that way. Ilana C. Meyer suggested the helpful screenwriter’s trick for writing any scene: “in late, out early.” Chris Girwell suggested that first person voice is an excellent way of filtering a wider, epic world through a single character’s perspective. The panel also seemed to agree that multiple third-person POVS can be useful for presenting the perspectives of diverse people positioned in all walks of life, enabling an author to present a wider sense of events than a single perspective can.
Following this panel, I made a dash to catch the beginning of Guy Gavriel Kay’s reading. The following is a paraphrase of the story Guy Kay told us.
The story behind the creation of Children of the Earth and Sky began eight or nine years ago when Kay was touring Croatia with an editor friend while heading for a librarian conference. They were making for the coast and the editor suggested he write about the Uskoks. Kay explained how upon hearing the name, he promptly asked his editor, “What?” in a “suave and urbane fashion,” he assured us. But he really had never yet heard of this culture of Dalmatian coastal pirates operative during the Renaissance. These Uskoks raided the borderlands of the Ottoman, Venetian and Holy Roman Empires in the Adriatic Sea. They regarded themselves as heroes, “warriors of the border.”
What this growing interest in the Uskoks produced is a novel set in the generation following the fall of Sarantium, which in terms of Kay’s ‘quarter-turn of the fantastic’ world-building corresponds to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Which means we have a novel set in the Renaissance that contains a significant section set in a city state evocative of Venice, with other locales to be revealed in the Spring.
I was slightly disappointed that Kay wasn’t turning towards North America for his inspiration this time around, which was my grand theory, but I felt a growing excitement for his new concept. The cover, which contains an ocean, a backdrop of a map, and a fleur-de-lys, along with a title evocative of Plains Indian mythology, suggested a novel set in New France, however inconsistent that would be with the Plains Indians. Kay had employed Plains culture in Fionavar Tapestry. My theory may have been a long shot in retrospect, but it’s easy to get excited about the actual concept Kay has now chosen: pirates!
Emphatically–and this is interesting in relation to the earlier panel on scale in epic fantasy–Kay describes his new novel as not being about kings, emperors, and courtiers, but about people who are powerless, unimportant. Children of the Earth and Sky revolves around five protagonists from various milieus who struggle to cope with what history sends their way. Illuminating the lives of secondary characters is something Kay has almost always been interested in and which truly showed itself in his two latest Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. However, Children of the Earth and Sky will be different in how it focuses on unimportant and disempowered characters.
I heard Kay read the tense opening scene of one of these characters’ stories. This involved a painter who produces a scandalous portrait of a countessa and lives to regret it. You could feel Kay’s strong love of art history expressed in how he weaved sexual tension into the drama of a artist’s struggle, providing insight into the secret behind this painter’s work, a canvas that depicts a woman’s knowing smile. Leonardo Da Vinci he is not, however: he soon finds himself in hot water. The dramatic pauses and practiced pacing of Kay’s reading combined to create a highly professional performance that promised only good things to come with the Spring release.
The epigraphs to the new novel are borrowed from poem No. XXX in Look, Stranger! by W.H. Auden (“We swayed forward on the dangerous flood of history…”) and from the poem “Parable” by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Glück.
I, for one, am going to try to apply to Penguin for an ARC and be among the first to review it. If I am successful, I will write a review informed by my knowledge of Kay’s entire oeuvre, having previously written a 50-page Honours thesis devoted to his works. As such, you can trust it will be a well-informed review.
Next week look out for an account of the second half of my experience at the World Fantasy Convention, in which I interview Charles de Lint!
Today’s post is another YouTube video, in which you will get to listen to my own reading of a piece of short fiction I wrote for the Mythgard Institute “Almost an Inkling” creative writing contest. The contest is still going on, but now that the current week’s voting is over, I was really enthusiastic to share this piece with the public.
The story is a brief historical fantasy that I originally conceived as a cross between Lord Dunsany’s wonder tales and T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Check it out.
Lately my blog posts have been slowing down because of the attention I’m giving to my research assistantship with Professor Robert Lecker at McGill University–we’re researching the history of literary agents and agencies in Canada. As such I have not had the occasion to post about my experience of MythCon 2015 as I did with MythCon 2014. The conference went well and perhaps in the coming months you will hear the whole story. Suffice it to say that my presentation on Charles de Lint’s multicultural utopia went smoothly and I even had a conversation with Brian Attebery about it.
Today, I’m going to be giving a brief sketch about an idea I might work on for another presentation adjacent to my main thesis. I may present the paper that this post might become, eventually, at the Northeast Modern Language Association conference (NeMLA), where a panel is being organized around the topic of war in science fiction and fantasy literature, especially as it pertains to utopian and dystopian fiction.
I was inspired to think up a topic for this panel because of a Mythopoeic Press publication, Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I. In here is a treasure hoard of essays contextualizing and historicizing the work of the Inklings (including Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield), along with G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E.R. Eddison, and T.H. White. These guys are fantasy’s T.S. Eliots, W.H. Audens, W.B. Yeatses, and Earnest Hemingways: authors who responded to the horror of World War that ushered in the age of modernity. However, Tolkien and crew approached literature in ways that were fundamentally different from their Modernist compatriots and–at times–associates: they were, generally speaking, more invested in preserving the heroic legacy of romance and adventure that fell out of favour in the literature after WWI. Plus they were less invested in realism, more invested in fantasy and mythopoeia.
I asked myself, in seeing the similarity between the essay collection’s theme and the topic up for discussion at NeMLA, how I might have contributed to Baptism of Fire, if I had been in a position to do so. It did not take me long to think of a topic.
The works of Kenneth Morris (1879-1937) have been neglected by critics for too long. Thankfully, Douglas A. Anderson has published a glorious volume of his collected short stories, republished for the first time in many, many years: a book called The Dragon Path. Part of the reason for this neglect stems from the fact Morris was for most of his life a Theosophist, publishing his poetry and short stories through Theosophical publications. In addition to this, his contemporaries thought his work too obscure to publish much of it in his own time–making him something of a fantasy writer hipster, writing parable-like works of historical fantasy way before Tolkien made the genre mainstream. He had a small but devoted audience.
His novel The Chalchiuhite Dragon: A Tale of Toltec Times went unpublished until long after his death, when Douglas A. Anderson sought to republish it in a new edition in the 1990s. I have already read and reviewed this novel here, but for those who want a recap, here’s the simple version of the plot:
The city of Huitznahuacan is a utopian enclave in the Mexican jungle during the pre-Colombian era. The residents participate in religious festivals and worship their gods as real, but they have never before heard of war as a practice among men. They believe that they alone are the only civilization on earth. But when the Toltecs arrive during a festival and encounter their culture, they appear as even stranger than the gods: the Huitznahuatecs are not alone! Soon, however, a religious hierarch of a foreign city, misled by anger and envy, plans to manipulate jungle savages to commit a series of murders that will deviously draw the peaceful civilization into armed conflict. The novel concludes with an anticipation of the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the Prince of Peace, who gives the Toltecs a new law.
Given that Morris began writing his rather obscure third novel in the 1920s and finished writing it, at last, in 1935, it was written during a time Europe was recovering from the shock of World War I and the world was dealing with the Great Depression. Furthermore, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) were just on the horizon. Had Morris been writing his novel through Britain’s negotiations with the Third Reich, it might have been possible to read a more or less direct correlation between Huitznahuacan’s failure of pacifism and the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, Morris would die before the beginning of the Second World War.
Although my first thought about how to historicize The Chalchiuhite Dragon was shot by the simple fact of Morris’s death in 1937, it did not deter me from investigating deeper. On a second revision, it appeared to me that the novel was still very much about pacifism anyway. Especially when reading the significance of the utopian enclave in his novel, it occurred to me that Morris was writing, quite possibly, about Point Loma, itself a utopian enclave, and Theosophy in general. A resident of San Diego for a long part of his life, and born in Wales, Morris never served at the front–at least Douglas A. Anderson mentions no such engagement. Morris was too busy writing short stories and poetry for the Theosophists.
Here is where W. Michael Ashcraft’s book Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture comes into play. This study of the community to which Morris devoted his life–quite literally, since it was his busy lecture schedule that may have contributed to his declining health–describes Theosophical positions to war, pacifism, and patriotism. In a nutshell: the Theosophists of Point Loma were more actively pacifist than the German branches of their movement, while in the States they participated with “other Americans in condemning the war and called for peaceful solutions to international problems” (169). Being an international society with a vision for the common brotherhood of humanity, Theosophists served patriotically during WWI, but always under the reverence of a ‘higher patriotism’ towards humanity as a whole. Katherine Tingley, a leader of Point Loma who asked Morris to write a novel on a pre-Columbian subject, which lead to The Chalchiuhite Dragon, was active in organizing and sponsoring meetings that promoted pacifism. Given how Huitznahuacan resembles Point Loma in its devotion to peace and the sacred as well as its being closed off from the outside world, it is difficult not to see where Morris derived his inspiration for the novel.
The thesis that emerges from this evidence is that Morris was expressing a Point Loma style of pacifism in The Chalchiuhite Dragon, as way to respond to the desolation of World War I, which must have affected him in some way, even if he was far from the front lines in San Diego, and that he also did so as a response to the growing climate of unease leading up to World War II. Further evidence of Morris’s reaction to the First World War might be sought out in the short stories and poems he was writing between 1914 and 1918, including the years directly following the war.
Although this post only shows a sketch of my ideas, I think the idea is electrifying. I hope the post, at least, might bring more people to read Kenneth Morris, whose short works, like Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels, explore various historical civilizations that span diverse cultures, such as ancient China, India, medieval Spain, Scandinavia, and the worlds of Welsh myth. In fact, Anderson credits him with being the inventor of modern Welsh fantasy. His style is read-out-loudable and very musical–occasionally, literally inspired in their cadence and theme by composers like Beethoven. His works, which often thematize the universal spiritual brotherhood of mankind and the importance of knowledge through experience, are tales relevant to any era and particularly for today.
The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.
“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient“
Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:
From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. […] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1
Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.
In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?
Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.
On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.
Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.
Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.
Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásysays, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.
Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.
Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.
1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.
2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).