Fantasy and the Real World:
The best fantasy novels offer a new perspective on, not an escape from, the real world.
CW: Sexual harassment, rape
You may as well get used to it: Every time I read a Melina Marchetta novel, it will probably end up in my blog. I’ve already recommended “Saving Francesca” and “Looking for Alibrandi,” and it is only a matter of time before I figure out how to incorporate “The Piper’s Son” or “Jellicoe Road.” Her books address subjects such as depression, suicide, broken relationships, etc.–but are also full of hope, restoration and even humor. “Jellicoe Road” and “Saving Francesca” in particular surprised me–they lead the reader to assume the story is about one problem (group rivalries in “Jellicoe Road” and Francesca’s lack of friends), but these problems are resolved earlier in the books than you’d expect, and when you reach the end, you realize that the book was about so much more than that. I’m also not certain if I’ve ever completed one of Marchetta’s works without crying at least once.
“Finnikin of the Rock” is no exception (if you’re wondering, it made me cry at least five times). The back cover quotes Marchetta as saying, “I was told often that I couldn’t write fantasy unless I had read all the greats and knew the conventions well, but I think the first step to writing good fantasy is knowing this world we live in well. I wanted to look closely at that world–where loss of faith, loss of homeland and identity, displacement of spirit, and breakdown of community are common–because these are the scenes in today’s media that affect me the most. In this sense, the book is a search for identity in the same way that my other novels are.”
If I had to choose one genre to read for the rest of my life, it would be fantasy, and it’s a treat to see how an author who primarily writes realistic fiction crosses over into writing fantasy and believes in its power to tell truthful stories. So, what are the stories “Finnikin” tells?
Finnikin of the Rock is a young man whose childhood was idyllic: he was the best friend to the king, his father was Captain of the King’s Guard, he had a kind and loving stepmother who was pregnant with his half-sibling, his country was at peace–and then everything was taken away. Not only was his country invaded and the royal family slaughtered, his father and step-mother were arrested and tortured, and, in their determination to lay blame for the tragedy, Finnikin’s countrymen themselves slaughtered the people who lived in the forest outside the royal city because they worshipped a different goddess. At the end of all this, they burned the leader of the forest people at the stake, a wise and powerful woman named Seranonna, and she cursed Finnikin’s country, trapping everyone inside the royal city in an impenetrable wall of malevolent energy. The land tore in two, and everyone was either exiled or trapped.
The majority of the story takes place twelve years later, and Finnikin and his mentor are working to finding a new homeland for their people. Their goal begins to change when they meet a young woman who claims that Finnikin’s best friend and heir to the throne is alive.
When Finnikin and the young woman eventually return to their homeland, they learn that Seranonna’s daughter, Tesadora, has been helping to hide young girls trapped inside the kingdom; the invader king and his soldiers routinely abuse the girls, but in some cases their families are able to administer herbs that make it appear as though the girls have died, afterwards smuggling them to an old convent near the kingdom’s border. While the girls are now “safe,” they have all experienced severe trauma and the road to healing will be long.
Finnikin and some soldiers ride to the convent after recapturing the country and confront Tesadora about the murder of the imprisoned invader-king, whom they’d been keeping alive for political reasons.
“There seem to be a lot of angry men in the vicinity, Captain,” Tesadora said by way of greeting. “They are disturbing my girls.” (p. 354)
And this is where the story began to remind me of the #metoo movement–in particular of the way the movement has affected the Children’s Literature industry, which is something I’d been thinking about writing on anyway. Although Finnikin and the soldiers with him were “good guys,” who had gone so far as to fight and shed blood for the liberation of the country, the young girls had been so hurt by the actions of other men that the soldiers needed to realize how their very presence and power could affect the girls, intentionally or not.
Last month, Ann Ursu published an article on Medium.com, which reported on a survey she’d sent out to judge the extent to which sexual harassment is a problem in the children’s publishing industry. In brief, it’s a problem. Following up this article was another article, in the comments of which some of the women surveyed (and others) began naming the perpetrators who had been unnamed in Ursu’s original article.
An author I follow on Facebook, Dan Wells, was named as a sexual harasser by an anonymous woman who later recanted her statement when people in her community questioned the veracity of her accusation, and she admitted that she’d chosen his name at random. Wells wrote a blog post on the situation, in which he says,
“Like many industries, publishing is going through a massive reckoning over serial sexual assault and harrassment. Articles, forums, and comments sections are filling up with women who are finding the courage and support to step forward and call out the creepy, awful behavior they have experienced from other authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, convention organizers, and more. I have always believed that you should believe a woman who says she’s been harassed, so I believe these women, too.
And then I was accused of being a harasser.
And then the same woman recanted her accusation.
I do not know who this woman is, as she posted anonymously both times, but I want to take this opportunity to pubicly accept her apology, and to thank her for coming forward.
But here’s the thing: I believed her. Obviously I didn’t believe that I had assaulted someone and then forgotten about it, or anything ridiculous like that. But I was–and am–willing to believe that without intending to and without noticing I had done something to make a woman feel uncomfortable or unwelcome or unsafe. I always try to do my best, but what if I made an off-color joke, or an accidental insinuation? My position as a podcaster and instructor puts me in a lot of conversations with aspiring authors asking for help and advice–what if I implied, even without realizing it, that my help and advice was contingent on some kind of unsavory quid pro quo? This woman claimed to have quit writing because of me, and I never want to be the reason that someone leaves this industry or community. I could have raged against the injustice of this comment–and to be perfectly honest, a part of me did–but the more useful, more helpful response was to sit down and take a good hard look at myself and my actions. What have I been doing, and what can I do in the future, to make the conventions I attend and the spaces I inhabit safer for other people?
Recanted accusation or not, I found some stuff I need to work on. Not a long history of abusive behavior, but a tune-up on boundaries, and on thinking before I speak.”
Even if you’re a “good guy,” everyone needs to take stock of how their words and actions could affect others. Two other articles on this issue that I’d like to point out are this blog post by Janci Patterson, in which she writes about her own experience of sexual harassment at the hands of a popular author, who also wrote a sincere apology prior to Patterson’s publishing her post (“When you make a mistake you have to own it” by Myke Cole). Patterson writes of how hard it can be to admit that an experience of sexual harassment is “a big deal” and how tempting it is to minimize your experience. But:
“I know it was a big deal because I never told anyone. Until this week, the only people who knew the particulars were my husband and my best friend. I even told her with trepidation. I have friends who are close to Myke, and I listened to their stories without comment. I said, yeah, I’ve met Myke. Yeah, he’s a nice guy. I laughed at stories. I went along.
I did so while feeling sick. I was lying. I was hiding. I had a secret even though I had done nothing wrong. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone because these people—my friends and Myke’s—were going to minimize my experience. They were going to tell me Myke was awesome and he didn’t mean it. They were going to say that like it was supposed to relieve my anger, my discomfort, my not knowing what to do with this.
I knew Myke was in many ways an excellent person. I knew that he hadn’t meant it. Never did I think that Myke was a predator. But he did a thing that was wrong to me, and I was the one who suffered for it. I was angry about that. I was afraid, and I was alone. Much of this was not about Myke particularly, because I never imagined that Myke himself would come after me, or that I was in any danger from him. Now I was being victimized by the culture, which frightens women into silence, so much so that I couldn’t even name his name to my close friends. They would have still been my friends. They would have tried to make me feel better. But before #metoo, we were none of us equipped to have that conversation in an appropriate and helpful way, because of the toxic sexism in our culture.”
Even if the girls in “Finnikin” experienced an extreme, systematic form of abuse and rape, their experience sheds light on the experiences of real women. Being in a culture of “toxic sexism” can make one feel trapped, powerless, voiceless and as though no one can be trusted. As Dan Wells and Myke Cole did, humbling yourself, evaluating your actions and resolving to do better/make restitution, especially if you are in a position of power/authority, are important steps toward dismantling this toxicity. As Patterson writes, when she read Cole’s apology, she finally felt “free.”
The women of “Finnikin of the Rock” are powerful and inspiring. They protect those who need protection, do their best to bring healing where there is pain, they refuse to surrender in the face of corruption and don’t back down before the powerful, even when those opposing them are ultimately on their side.
It is difficult to accept that sexual harassment is such a problem in our culture that it even affects the kidlit industry, and that even authors who profess to believe in the #metoo movement or write books celebrating love and diversity may have a history of sexually harassing their less-established colleagues. But I am grateful to see authors like Wells and Cole taking stock of their actions and determining to behave better in the future. It is wonderful to read of the reconciliation between Patterson and Cole, to see Patterson both able to admit that she was harassed, without feeling like she has to justify another person’s actions or pretend that she wasn’t truly hurt by them, and to forgive her harasser. And I am grateful to writers like Melina Marchetta, who can portray so perfectly, even in a fantasy novel, the need for reconciliation and humility in a culture of toxic sexism.
P.S. This article was published by NPR on March 5, 2018: “‘It Just Felt So Very Wrong’: Sherman Alexie’s Accusers Go On the Record”