Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diversity and Imaginary Maps

Mark Auslander writes: Tomorrow, Prof. Yukari Amos' Multicultural Education class is visiting our student-curated exhibition on mapping imaginary worlds, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey into Imaginary Worlds," and I am wondering how best to engage her class in questions of multiculturalism and diversity in reference to fantasy maps.  I've already posted on my own blog on some of the interpretive and analytic issues raised by the exhibition, at:


But how, rather than lecturing, to engage students in a critical conversation about the show and the broader topics of race and difference in imaginary map and speculative fiction?

One might start with engaging students in a conversation in front of Tolkien's map of the world of Arda and the long debated question of how deeply embedded British imperial racism is within the Rings book: one might note the depiction of the darker (or "Mongol-like") Orcs as epitomizing the demonic, and the Manichean struggle between Light and Dark through the series.  Tolkien's maps of the Arda world, it has been noted, are roughly modeled on the actual world map (with the Americas and the Eurasia being linked through a vast kind of land-bridge across the equivalent of the North Atlantic.)  His maps  do seem to be racially coded:  his white skinned heroic peoples are located in the geographical region of the map that seems to correspond to Europe, "Mordor" is literally "The Dark Land," and his darker skinned villainous "easterlings" and "southrons" come from regions that seem to correspond to Asia and Africa, respectively.

C.S.Lewis, Narnia map
One might next turn to the maps that illustrate C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: the heroic core lands of Narnia and Archenland are ruled over by white-skinned heroes, while the treacherous southern kingdom of Calorman, inhabited by darker skinned peoples, is figured as a kind of parody of an Islamic polity. 

But then it would be interesting if members of the class argued about the question of the impact of these works. After all, some might argue, fiction allows for "interpolated readings", in which readers may profoundly identify with protagonists across literal lines of race, gender or class, and find deeply meaningful ways to vicariously co participate in journeys of heroic self fashioning.

 At that point, it might be worth introducing the famous "I sit with Shakespeare" passage in W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk:

 I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not;
I move arm in arm with Balzac and with Dumas,
where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.

From out the caves of evening
that swing between the strong-limbed earth
and the tracery of the stars,
I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will,
and they come with no scorn or condescension.

So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil,
above the dull red hideousness of Georgia;
and standing upon this high Pisgah,
between Philistine and Amaleki

In a sense, DuBois in this passage constructs his own imaginary literary map, which he populates with European authors and their creations, transposed onto the topos of the Holy Land.  Not insignificantly he situates himself upon the peak of Pisagh/Mt. Nebo, from which Moses gazed into the Promised Land, the land which he would never himself enter. (DuBois' words would be in a sense echoed six decades later in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered the night before death: "I might not get there with you...")

Earthsea (Ursula LeGuin)
Having acknowledged the possibility of interpolated readings, it is also important to discuss with students cases of speculative or fantasy fiction that challenge, undercut or transcend normative white EuroAmerican models of race. We might look at Ursula LeGuin's maps of Earthsea, in which most of the populace, including nearly all the heroic figures, are red skinned or black skinned, and in which the white skinned, blond figures are the violent, barbaric Kargs, who are only brought back into the orbit of full humanity at the very end of her revisiting of the Earthsea universe, in The Other Wind. Perhaps some students will recall the irony, still reviled by LeGuin fans, that the dreadful Sci Fi channel's adaptation of Earthsea cast nearly all the characters with white actors. Or the various controversies over casting in The Hunger Games, in which, among other things, the heroine, described as "olive skinned" in the book, was played by a white actress.

 Or we might discuss the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, in which the heroines are generally of African descent (no drawn maps, so far as I can recall) but who are enmeshed in nuanced and complex fields of interracial and interspecies desire.

To be sure, it is challenging to hold such conversations when students vary greatly in the speculative fiction with which they are familiar.  So it might be easiest to concentrate on books and films, or multiplayer video games, which are most likely familiar to most students (discussing racial imagery and casting in the Harry Potter or Twilight books and films, for instance).

Finally, when students are invited to make their own maps of imaginary worlds, it might be worth discussing whether or not any of them feel called upon to signify the race or ethnicity of their protagonists. Are "post racial" fantasy maps possible or are race and power forever embedded in cartographic representations, even (especially?) at levels of the avowedly imaginary?

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