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Thu May 29, 2014
Magic From The Margins In Long-Awaited 'Long Hidden'
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As I was growing up, the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis provided a way to escape a childhood I wasn't quite sure I would survive. Myth is powerful stuff; it opened doorways to alternate realities that helped me see more clearly the twisted power lines that dictated my upbringing. But that was my childhood: the childhood of a white, middle class girl who could relate to middle class white hobbits and the Pevensie children and the icky evil they encountered (which, trust me, was very icky).
That twisty point becomes the double edged sword upon which the fantasy tradition continuously spears itself — if it speaks to you, why concern yourself with acknowledging the grotesque gaps and silent spaces where the narratives of marginalized voices have been relegated? The collected stories in Long Hidden create a bridge between history and fantasy that allows for even deeper truths to be told.
For instance, Ken Liu's "Knotting Grass, Holding Ring" is a retelling of the Manchu invasion of China, which resulted in the Yangzhou Massacre of 1645. It's a beautiful, heartrending story of a prostitute who — despite eschewing notions of virtue and karma — tries to save the lives of the women around her, with varying results. I had never heard about the Yangzhou atrocities before reading this story, but equally important, when had I ever heard about the heroic actions of a sex worker?
Sofia Samatar's "Ogres of East Africa" takes the form of a clerk's poetical cataloging of African monsters, which his British employer wishes to hunt and collect. The clerk adds fascinating marginalia concerning the ogres, noting that there "is a strange pleasure in this writing and not-writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion." Within those rhetorical spaces, the hunting party begins to experience an eerie transformation.
Samatar has written that the story was inspired in part "by a horrible book called A Picnic Party in Wildest Africa, by C.W.L. Bulpett, which was published in 1907." I haven't read that particular book, but I am the grandchild of missionaries. I remember the ornate tusk that rested on our fireplace, the elephant footstool I used to sit on as a girl and the African masks that decorated our living room. I lived in the home of the hunter.
Some of the stories don't present a full narrative arc; they feel more like portraits or anecdotes. Nnedi Okorafor's "It's War" gives a snapshot of the "Women's War" in Nigeria in 1929. The story might easily be part of a larger work; it left me wanting to know more about the main character, Arro-yo, who is labeled a witch once she tries to rescue one of the instigators of the rebellion.
But the story was more than a snapshot – it was the start of a research trail, as I found more information about the Igbo women and their protest against unfair taxation. Those protests helped to end the unfair rule of the Warrant Chiefs, who were essentially puppet rulers for the British.
Meanwhile, Jamey Hatley's "Collected Likenesses" explores the generational effect of slavery as a grandmother shows her granddaughter that even as she punishes those who enslaved her, nothing can erase the uncanny connection she has with her oppressors: "This work is a revealing. Both sides. Ain't no hiding place in it. Strike a match to a likeness, you feel the burnt. Cut one and you bleed. Drown it and you fight to breathe. This little I take is a willing price for what they pay on the other side." The granddaughter seeks to continue the grandmother's retribution after her death — while also holding down a job and finding love — but she discovers a deep truth: One's skin cannot bear both the scars and erasure of history.
The stories in this anthology embrace that ethic — that the fantastic cannot be truly wondrous if it reflects only one master narrative with identical landscapes (European) and heroes (white). Yes, the status quo sells books — but fantasy shouldn't be the publishing industry's Stepford wife, bland and compliant. In a counter narrative, I dream of an army of authors, reviewers, and readers mustering up to join in this rhetorical war, the likes of which will put any mere orc-and-dragon scuffle to shame.
Nancy Hightower is the author of Elementari Rising and reviews science fiction and fantasy in her roundup column in The Washington Post.